For Kelly Turner, a researcher and lecturer in the field of integrative oncology, the realization that spontaneous remission of cancer was even a possibility blew her mind. For the rest of the world, perhaps particularly those who have been diagnosed with cancer, having a better understanding of this largely misunderstood phenomenon could literally save their lives.
This first installment of a two-part column looks at the inspiration behind Dr. Turner’s upcoming book, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, the nature and implications of her research, and the reception she’s received from her peers. Next month, part two will examine her most startling discovery and take a deep dive into the role of spirituality in the treatment of this disease.
It all began when Turner was just eight years old. Her uncle, who lived nearby and was the same age as her father, died of leukemia. Just six years later, a classmate and dear friend was diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed on shortly thereafter.
Fast forward another nine years and Turner found herself working on her master’s degree and counseling cancer patients at the University of California, San Francisco’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. It was then that she picked up a copy of Spontaneous Healing, a book by integrative medicine guru, Dr. Andrew Weil.
“I remember reading it on my lunch break and I got to the point in his book where he brings up a spontaneous remission case from cancer and I just froze,” she said during a recent interview. “It’s still hard for me to believe that I hadn't heard of these cases before. Maybe I had and I'd never taken them seriously, but to see one in print in front of me, it just stopped me in my tracks, and I said, ‘Even if this just happened once, it should have been national news.’”
That same day she went home and stayed up until midnight reading anything she could find on the Internet about spontaneous remission, including a comprehensive study done by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in nearby Petaluma documenting over a thousand cases of spontaneous remission from malignant cancer.
“I remember just being angry,” she said. “I was like, what the heck? I’m finding cases from 1790 and I had not heard about this? That’s when I decided to continue on for my PhD and just study this really intensely.”
One of the first things Turner noticed was that few if any of the medical studies she read made any mention of the people who actually experienced the spontaneous remission.
“I would read case after case after case in the medical journals and after every one I would write on the bottom, ‘What does the patient think healed him or her?’ No one in these medical reports was asking that,” she said. She also noticed that no one seemed interested in the non-allopathic, non-western healers involved.
This prompted Turner, as part of her doctoral dissertation, to take a ten-month tour of the world to interview 50 alternative cancer healers in 11 different countries including the United States, China, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand, India, England, Ireland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Brazil. By the time she returned, she had also uncovered 20 new cases of spontaneous remission and conducted interviews with the survivors. This included individuals who had either been diagnosed with cancer and chose to receive no conventional medical treatment, or cancer patients who had given conventional medicine a try and then gave it up for something else. Since then, Turner added a third category to include those who combined multiple methods of treatment.
One of the first things she discovered during her research was that she needed to come up with a better definition of spontaneous remission.
“The issue that I have with the word ‘spontaneous’ is that, by definition, it means ‘without a cause.’ Like it just happens out of the blue, unpredictably,” said Turner. “To use the word ‘spontaneous’ really takes away from what I have found in my research, which is that many of these people worked very hard to get better. They didn't just sit there and twiddle their thumbs and poof, one day their cancer was gone.”
Using the word “unexpected” instead of “spontaneous” was not much better, since most of the cases she was studying were anything but unexpected by the individuals involved.
“Many of these people believed from the very beginning that they were going to beat this,” Turner said, “that they were going to live and they were going to heal.”
Many years and many focus groups later, Turner has finally settled on “radical remission.”
“I think ‘radical’ indicates two things,” she said. “It indicates that this is a radical occurrence. This is out of the ordinary. Number two is that it involves radical changes, which is really the heart of my research – that these people made radical changes to their lives.”
Broadly speaking, these radical changes included one or more of the following: change of diet; experiencing a deeper spirituality; feeling love, joy, or happiness; releasing repressed emotions; taking herbs or vitamins; using intuition to help make treatment decisions; taking control of health decisions; having a strong will to live; and receiving social support.
What surprised Turner most was that of these nine “treatments,” as she describes them, seven had to do with emotional and spiritual, as opposed to physical, factors.
“I was not expecting it to be one way or the other,” she said. “I just wanted to hear whatever [the survivors] had to say, so to hear so much come up regarding psycho-emotional-spiritual stuff was very surprising to me. What it tells me is that the mind/brain is running the whole show.”
Next week’s column will more deeply explore this “psycho-emotional-spiritual stuff,” a subject that is perhaps at the root of some of the resistance Turner encounters when presenting her findings to doctors who are prone to questioning whether the individuals involved actually had cancer to begin with.
“It's understandable, because they were trained in a very reductionistic model,” she said, “where the only thing that matters is the biological [aspect].”
Even so, Turner finds increasing interest from oncologists who have themselves witnessed cases of spontaneous or, to use her word, radical remission.
“Whenever I go to medical conferences I say, ‘How many of you have had a case like this in the history of your practice?,’ and a bunch of hands go up,” she said. “Then I say, ‘How many of you who just raised your hands took the time to write an article and submit it for publication?,’ and then all the hands drop.”
It is possible that this failure to report what until recently was thought to be little more than an anomaly could change as the next generation of doctors becomes better acquainted with the practicalities of the so-called mind-body connection.
“The new wave of doctors are much more open to this idea that the body works as an integrated system as opposed to, ‘This is how the heart works, and this is how the liver works, and they don't talk to each other,’” said Turner. “The idea that we're really this integrated system that's really, really talking to all levels at all times – that's the new medicine and the new understanding.”
Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Part 2 of this series will appear next week.
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