Self Help Exercises

An American Health Magazine article states,

How you feel about yourself affects your physical well-being. Researchers now recognize that a sense of purpose, a positive outlook and the feeling of being in control of one’s life may help prevent illness, from cancer to the common cold.

The notion that attitudes affect health is almost as old as medicine. But it’s taken the re-emergence of certain humanistic values in medicine for doctors to put science to work charting exactly how the mind influences the body and vice versa.

They are finding that attitude and state-of-mind can alter the responsiveness of nerve cells to a variety of chemicals that relay messages throughout the brain and nervous system. Further, chemical messengers of mood and motivation in the brain communicate with cells in the immune system responsible for countering invasion by tumors and microorganisms…

It may be a long time before anyone draws a complete picture of the mind’s effect on the body. But this much is known: we each have a larger role than ever imagined in combating illness.

The body has an immune system. One of the theories is that part of the immune system is the thymus gland located in your chest directly behind the breastbone. The thymus gland has two specific functions. First of all, it creates 12 to 15 different hormones. These hormones travel throughout the body looking for cancer cells.

When they find the type of cell that they recognize, they do not harm the cell but attach themselves to it and send back a signal to the thymus gland. In response to this signal, the thymus gland dispatches a natural killer cell (NK cell) that goes directly to this hormone and kills the cell. It then returns to the thymus gland ready to be sent out again.

One thought is that the thymus gland can be controlled by the brain in that during a time of trauma or depression, the brain will reduce the function of the thymus gland. During this period of reduced function, cancer cells, which are supposed to occur normally in each person some six times a year, are allowed to divide and multiply. When the trauma or depression is over, the thymus gland will resume normal operating. By this time, the cancer has had a chance to multiply and establish itself to the point where the NK cells are incapable of destroying it. At this point, we have cancer.

Two cancer treatment specialists rationalized that if the mind played a function in causing cancer, why couldn’t the mind be trained to help treat the cancer. They started a clinic in 1976 and brought 150 cancer patients there. These were not normal cancer patients, though. They had two unique qualities. First, they were terminal because their doctor said they were going to die from their cancer. Second, they could have no possible medical treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, hyperthermia, immunotherapy, etc. These people were going to die from their cancer.

They taught these people two things. First, they taught these people to relax. Not just superficially, but a way down deep relaxation. It is a scientifically proven fact that tumors grow faster in mice under stress. What is the dangerous part about your cancer? The fact that it will continue to grow! If your cancer never grew from where it is, you could live for another 100 years with it. If, by relaxing, you could slow down the growth of your tumor, you would be better off.

Second, they taught these people to visualize their cancer and think it away. Sound silly?  Some two years later, when Annette and I read about them in the newspaper, of the initial group of 150 terminal cancer patients using only their minds to think away the cancer, some 10% were totally free of cancer. Another approximately 10% were dramatically improved. A third 10% had their cancer stabilized. My wife and I made up our minds that if I had a 30% chance of staying alive instead of none, we were going to go there. As it was, the doctors felt that they could successfully treat me. However, I used the relaxation and imagery in conjunction with the medical treatments. I cannot say that it is what cured me, but I can state without any question that it made me feel better; I believe it helped, and I positively know it did not hurt me. I would never recommend this in lieu of medicine but only in addition to everything else your doctor wants you to do.

A study of 45 elderly residents in retirement homes suggests relaxation therapy may enhance a person’s natural ability to fight disease. The study, conducted by researchers at Ohio State University, found an increase in cells that defend against viral infections and a decrease in certain antibody levels in volunteers who practiced relaxation techniques, compared to no change in control volunteers who didn’t use the techniques.

In discussing these theories with doctors, I have found that those outstanding physician whose primary interest is the recovery of the patient, who insist on an independent second opinion, who seek help from major cancer centers and refer their patients to qualified specialists, are staunch believers in this form of therapy in addition to medicine.  The practitioners who are trying to build their practice generally have a desire to receive full credit for a cure without having to share it with any other institution, physician or method of therapy. Their most espoused argument against relaxation and imagery is that the statistics are inaccurate because the people who use it have a stronger desire to live than the average person. My answer is that I only want to help those who have a strong desire to live. If a person wants to die, that is their business. Those who want to live should have every opportunity to do so.

Occasionally, a shallow thinking health professional says that medical treatments are the only thing that cure cancer. He does not want his patient confused with the idea that anything but his doctor can help treat him. Mental attitude has nothing to do with it. Furthermore, if the patient tries mental imagery and it doesn’t help them, they will have a guilt complex and that attitude will hinder their recovery. If that isn’t talking out of both sides of their mouth, I don’t know what is! If the patient’s mental attitude could hinder their recovery, how could it have nothing to do with their recovery?  When someone can explain spontaneous remission to me, I’ll quit believing in lots of things. The head of a major cancer center, an outstanding oncologist, told me he strongly believes in, as he put it, the will to live. He had a very good personal friend admitted with advanced cancer. He believed she had only a week or so to live. She was in critical condition. She had a daughter’s wedding scheduled for some months hence and her husband had promised her a trip to Europe after the wedding. He urged her to move the daughter’s wedding to the next few days because of her condition. She insisted she would make the wedding and the trip to Europe. Sure enough, she went into remission, was there to watch her daughter get married and even went on a wonderful trip to Europe feeling good. On the return trip her cancer recurred. She returned directly to the hospital where she died a few days later.

Going even further, and this is a giant step further, Dr. Herbert Benson, the cardiologist who heads behavioral medicine at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, one of the main teaching facilities at Harvard Medical School says, “Belief is the hidden ingredient in Western medicine and every traditional system of ‘healing’ I know about…A new drug given by a doctor who believes in it enthusiastically is far more potent than the same drug given by a skeptical doctor…Clinical studies have shown that a patient’s belief in a medicine can make it far more effective.”

From these comments, you can appreciate my statement that there are 3 fundamental requirements for an individual to have a chance to beat cancer. First is an honest, strong desire to live. Second is total confidence in their doctor. Third is absolute confidence that the treatment their doctor is recommending will successfully treat them. If any of these three factors is missing, I urge the patient to make a few telephone calls to see if a qualified physician can be found who can make them possible.

I have a stronger reason to believe this than anyone else. After being told I was terminal, I went to a doctor who said he would cure me. He did not say he would try this or hope for that. He said he would cure me, and he told me step by step exactly what would happen to me over the next year. Everything happened as he said it would and at the end of two years, I was cured. A year later, I heard an outstanding oncologist say there was no chemotherapy effective against my type of cancer. I felt like standing up and saying,  “Here I am.” Again, in 1984, some 6 years after these drugs helped cure me, I heard the head of a cancer center say the same thing. Then and only then, I realized what it probably was. Drugs alone are in truth probably ineffective against this type of cancer. But these same drugs given by an enthusiastic physician to a patient who believes they will work and who practices mental imagery along with the drugs did their intended job.

In other words, for some patients with cancer, there are no medical options. Relaxation and imagery could help in these cases. It positively cannot hurt. In most cases there are multiple medical options. Here, relaxation and imagery could help doubly by stirring up the body’s own immune system to help kill the cancer, along with magnifying the effects of the treatments to destroy the cancer.

An additional benefit of relaxation and imagery is that it allows a patient to be intimately involved in their own recovery. It gives them a feeling of being at least partially in charge of their own destiny, which can do nothing but improve the quality of life. As the child of a patient so aptly put it in a letter, it made her father fight to live rather than wait to die.

Relaxation and imagery, as the name implies, is a two step process. It is felt that imagery can be much more effective only after relaxation has been successfully established.  Relaxation is not a state of being that you hope or wish for; it is the result of a specific set of physical acts. If you follow the prescribed recommendations, you will end up relaxed. Several methods are suggested. Some people are more receptive to one method than another. Try each several times and then use the method with which you feel the most comfortable and which does the best job for you.

Both meditation and relaxation are highly effective natural ways to handle stress. While both have the effect of getting you deeply calm and relaxed, the real benefits are in the rest of the day when this calm spreads into other phases of your activities. This calm state is the direct opposite of stress. Your breathing slows, your heartbeat is quiet, your metabolism lowers and your body recuperates during this period. The effects are gradual, but the more you practice, the greater they will be.

The meditation method is a way for you to let go of all the cares and worries that are on your mind. You release any thoughts you have other than the meditation. After making yourself comfortable in a chair, sofa or bed, loosen any tight clothing, close your eyes and relax. Focus your attention on your breath and its rhythm. If your mind wanders to any thought, bring it back to your breath. Just notice the easy and gentle passage of breath in and out of the nose. Don’t try to control your breathing in any way. Just be aware of the situation. Be fully aware of the whole in-breath and the whole out-breath. This focus on your breath lets your body share the truly relaxed state. Some people like to say a comforting word of prayer with each breath like “health” or “peace.” Some like to just be aware of each breath without saying anything. Stay awake. Do not allow
yourself to fall asleep. Each meditation session is unique. There is no right way or wrong way to feel. Just keep track of your breathing and let happen whatever happens.  Probably 10 to 15 minutes is long enough.

Our muscles store the tension of stress. To relax, we must first become aware of the difference between our tense state and that of deep relaxation. To use this second method, lie down on a thick carpet or mat, loosen any tight clothing, close your eyes and make yourself comfortable. Again, stay awake. The theory of this exercise is to tighten and relax each muscle. Begin by flexing your toes toward your knees. You will feel your calves tighten. Hold that tightly for 3 or 4 seconds and then let your toes relax and repeat. Lift your legs a few inches with your muscles tight, hold, drop them back and repeat. Tighten your buttocks hard, hold, relax, repeat. Hold your stomach way in, hold, relax, repeat. Take as deep a breath as possible, hold, exhale and repeat slowly. Relax as long as you feel comfortable between any of these exercises. Press your shoulders firmly to the floor arching your back, hold, release and repeat. Make your right hand into a tight fist, hold, relax and repeat. Bring your right hand to your right shoulder, make a muscle by tensing it, hold, relax and repeat. Repeat both of these with your left hand and arm. Shrug your shoulders toward your ears, hold, relax and repeat. Press your chin down against your chest, hold, relax and repeat. Close your eyes very tightly tensing your face muscles, hold, relax and repeat. Clench your teeth tightening your jaw, hold, relax and repeat. Try to picture your whole body as soft and relaxed with a warmth spreading through every part. Imagine you have no more tension and your body is floating free. The sense of well-being, the healing sense, is filling your body and flowing through every part. Enjoy this deep relaxation for as long as you like.

Another method, the one I used most often, involves making yourself extremely comfortable in a chair, sofa or bed, loosening any tight clothing, closing your eyes and relaxing. Then, picture your forehead and say to yourself, “My forehead is relaxed.” Then, picture your eyebrows and say, “My eyebrows are relaxed.” Then your eyelids, your cheeks, your nose, your mouth, your chin and so forth down to your toes. By this time you should be fairly relaxed. Picture your body floating in an environment you particularly enjoy. I personally happen to like water, sunshine and trees. I pictured myself floating down a winding path beside a lake and finally lying in deep grass under tall trees with sunlight streaming through. You can use any other set of circumstances that you find appealing, comforting and relaxing.

Take this time for yourself to get calm, clear and deeply relaxed. A regular session of relaxation in and of itself is an antidote to the ravages of stress. Do this 3 times a day, morning, midday and evening, for 15 to 20 minutes including your imagery. It has a cumulative effect that you will learn to enjoy and treasure.

While you are relaxed, realize that you are master of your body. It is yours to control, and it will care for you. It will follow your directions. A medical doctor wrote, “The greatest resource in medicine is within the patient himself.”

Think about your thymus gland which is situated just under your breastbone. Direct your thymus gland to send out hundreds of thousands of new “T” cells that look like guard dogs, very protective of you. Send them to the parts of your body that you are the most concerned about. As you watch them go, whenever they find a cancer cell, they begin to eat and tear and devour those cancer cells. The cancer is fat, dumb and jelly-like. It cannot move, run or fight because it is a wrong cell that is not supposed to be there. It has no defense mechanism. Your “T” cells were designed specifically to search out and destroy these wrong cells. They are doing their job beautifully. Cancer cells are like raw hamburger: it is very easy for the “T” cells to completely eat them. They completely eradicate every cancer cell that is there. You can then picture that zone of your body clear and clean and free of cancer, pink and beautiful. Picture your “T” cells on a continuous search throughout your body detecting any cell that has gone wrong and killing it and being flushed from your system. You know these “T” cells are on guard 24 hours a day protecting and defending you as they were designed to do.

Relax for a few moments. Stress reduces the function of the immune system and relaxation reduces stress. Each time you practice this, your relaxation should get deeper and more beneficial.

Another method of imagery is to picture your “T” cells as little shocks of electricity. They look like little lights streaming out of your thymus gland, very vigorously. You watch them go to the part of the body with which you are most concerned, latch on to any cancer cells and shock and kill them. Some people prefer to picture their “T” cells as white knights in the form of “pac-man,” a happy, aggressive white ball with only a mouth incessantly snapping that searches out and devours all cancer cells.

No matter which of these methods you use, or one you might create, try it. Do it 3 times a day for 15 to 20 minutes each. Try different methods before you settle on one. Then use if for at least 10 consecutive days before thinking it is not for you. We are each supposed to learn something new every day. If this is your new knowledge for the day, you have done well for yourself, maybe helped to save your life.

For a graphic demonstration of what visual imagery is, create in your mind a vivid image of a ripe, yellow lemon squirting juice into your mouth and onto your tongue. You will actually begin to salivate. That is a clear example of how imagery can affect the nervous system, which regulates bodily processes and was traditionally thought to be beyond conscious control. If thinking of a juicy lemon makes you salivate, then what happens when you think of your life situation as hopeless? You are telling your immune system, “Don’t bother! Don’t do the best you can to heal me!” And to the contrary, when you image your medical treatments or your immune system as creating more mechanisms to kill your cancer, maybe that is just what it is doing.

There are no thorough studies yet that pinpoint the precise psychological mechanisms involved when emotions seem to affect health, says Leonard S. Zegans, M.D., past professor of psychiatry at U.C.S.F. But, he adds, researchers believe that “hormones produced in response to emotional situations may affect lymphocytic (white blood cell) function and thus immunity to cancer, viral diseases and bacterial illnesses. Anything which gives a person a greater sense of control over the situation can be helpful. Information, for example, can relieve anxiety, and that can in turn improve a patient’s chances for recovery.”

Tapes to help you understand and practice relaxation are available from numerous sources including private practitioners and public libraries. If you have a problem finding one locally, you may borrow one free by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope requesting “tape” to the Cancer Hotline, One H&R Block Way, Kansas City, MO 64105 OR by sending us an e-mail (