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The Power of Positive Thinking - Rachel Charles

Rachel Charles gave up her high-pressure job in publishing after being diagnosed with cancer ten years ago. She retrained as a Psychosynthesis therapist and is a BAC Accredited Counsellor working mainly in private practice from her home in rural Suffolk.

Rachel is also a writer and the author of several books including Mind, Body and Immunity: Enhancing your body's natural defences for good health and long life (Cedar/Mandarin, 2nd rev. ed. 1996) and Food For Healing:  (Cedar/Mandarin 1995). She contributed to Fighting Spirit: The stories of women in the Bristol Breast Cancer Survey, edited by Heather Goodare (Scarlet Press, 1996). As a member of the Bristol Survey Support Group, she appeared in the 'Free For All' film Cancer Positive, which was shown on Channel 4 television in 1992.

The Registrar was kind and reassuring: 'The result of the needle biopsy was inconclusive', he said, 'so we think it's best to take the lump out and analyse it - just to be sure.' He patted me gently on the shoulder. 'Try and stay positive. We'll have you in and out in a couple of days. It's so important to be positive', he stressed.

I knew he was right, but how was this possible? How could I think positive thoughts, when I felt so frightened? I tried to smile bravely, but deep inside me, I knew the lump was cancer. And it wasn't long before I had my suspicions confirmed. The morning after the operation, the Consultant and his team arrived at my bedside with a flurry of white coats. When he pronounced the words 'primary carcinoma', I wasn't at all surprised. He also was encouraging, saying the prognosis was quite good, and that the best thing was to put it all behind me and get on with my life.

I nodded dutifully, but my mind was in a whirl. I had just had a diagnosis of cancer, a life-threatening disease, and yet I was supposed to pretend it had never happened and keep thinking positive thoughts. How could I bring about the transformation expected of me, from the shivering wreck I felt myself to be, to this super-confident, positive-thinking creature that apparently had a better chance of staying well? None of the problems at work and at home had gone away. I was still that same stressed-out, anxiety-ridden person. Moreover, there was a further blow to deal with. The routine bone scan showed a dubious area, a 'hot spot' across my ribs, which could be merely post-operative, or was an indication that the cancer had already spread. The doctor was unsure and there was nothing she could do except offer me a further scan in three months' time. I needed help - and fast.

The Cancer Help Centre

As luck would have it, a friend had heard about the Cancer Help Centre at Bristol and encouraged me to go. Perhaps some enlightened person there could assist me in my quest for those elusive positive thoughts. Indeed, the whole programme at the Centre was geared to putting patients in the driving seat, helping them to feel in charge of their own healing, rather than being the victims of a terrifying illness. By feeding ourselves with a low-fat, nutrient-rich diet, we were giving our bodies the right ingredients for healthy cells. Deep physical relaxation and meditation, with the assistance of bio-feedback, were practical anti-stress tools that also put our minds and bodies into a state where healing could most readily take place. Then there was visualization, in which we learnt how to imagine the white cells of our immune systems fighting off the cancer. Yet fear was never denied. There was plenty of opportunity to pour out all feelings, either in hour-long talks with the doctor or counsellor, or through the medium of painting in the art therapy room, or simply by sharing them with other patients.

After a full week of the Bristol regime, I was beginning to realize what a tremendous amount I could do to help myself. Moreover, the idea had been dropped into my mind that it was possible to influence our own immune defences to be more effective in their task of trapping and killing errant cancer cells. Here were positive thoughts indeed! But I needed the evidence. What scientific studies were there to show that this theory was based on sure foundations?

Some fascinating research

I managed to take two months' sick leave and whenever possible took myself to the medical library in central London. There I came across a long, tongue-twisting word: psychoneuroimmunology, the science that studies the effect that the mind and emotions have on the immune system. I was excited! Previously it had been supposed that immunity operated on its own, responding directly to harmful organisms, but here were research papers showing that the nervous and immune systems could 'talk' to each other via chemical messengers. This meant that both conscious and unconscious activities of the brain, including thoughts and mood, could affect the way that the white defence cells behave, causing them to be either more or less effective.

Both doctors and psychotherapists have been aware for a long time of the close connections between mind and body, often observing that patients with 'fighting spirit' do better that those who give in to their illness. Such observations, however, have been merely anecdotal and have therefore lacked scientific credibility. Here at last were clear explanations of how a positive mental attitude could actually help boost immunity, and thereby encourage the body to heal itself.

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