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The healing power of love
As I rummaged through the journals in the psychology section, I came across many relevant articles, but one in particular caught my eye. Two Harvard psychologists, David McClelland and Carol Kirshnit, conducted an experiment in 1982. They tested the saliva of people who watched movies about love, and discovered that the levels of their antibodies known as immunoglobulin-A increased significantly for up to an hour after each film was finished. The effect was extended if the subjects recalled times when they had received tender loving care from someone.
So love really is a great healer! Here was evidence that loving thoughts and mood actually increase antibody production.
As part of my get-well programme, I meditated frequently on loving images and memories, and took every opportunity to indulge myself in romantic novels and films. At the same time I imagined my white cell count increasing and becoming more powerful. Most importantly, I became more open to receiving love, allowing myself to be warmed and nourished by the care and support that others provided.
I also learnt to ask for help. Being a super-independent sort of person, I found this extraordinarily difficult, but it became easier with practice. When I discovered that some people actually enjoy providing assistance, because it makes them feel wanted and useful, this was a revelation to me!
I now totally understood how it was that cancer patients who used visualization had a better prognosis than those who did nothing. These observations had been made in particular by Carl and Stephanie Simonton at their Cancer Counselling and Research Center in Dallas, Texas, and recounted in full in their best-selling book Getting Well Again.
Come what may, I was determined that the 'hot spot' would no longer be there when my bone scan was repeated. After my meditation and relaxation sessions, which I now practised three times a day, I imagined that my skeleton was a tall tree and that my white defence cells were a flock of doves. They investigated every branch and twig for little black grubs (malignant cells) and pecked up any that they found. Their droppings fell to the earth and fertilised the tree, which grew big and strong. I reinforced this image by making drawings of it.
Also helpful was the visualization of warm, bright, healing light, pouring in through the top of my head and radiating throughout my body, touching every cell with its beneficent power.
At Bristol, we were guided through a visualization which took us to a place of healing. I adapted this for myself, and used it whenever my positive thinking becomes a little shaky. You may like to try it, too.
My imagination takes me to a beautiful meadow filled with wild flowers and the sound of birdsong. The sun is warm on my skin and I feet light and free. At the bottom of the meadow is a river flowing by, with water so clear that I can see the fish darting around between the stones. There is a path running along its bank and I decide to follow this to find the source of the river. After a while it leads into a valley, with hills sloping away gently on either side. It begins to climb upwards and the river narrows to a stream. Eventually I find myself walking through a cool pine forest, where it is so quiet that all I can hear is the splashing of the stream and the sound of the breeze rustling through the branches.
Soon I come to a sunlit clearing and I can at last see what I have been looking for - the source of the river - a spring of pure water pouring from a crevice in some granite rock. I know that I have found a special place, a place of healing, where everything is clear, pure and more essential. I walk up to the spring and drink the sparkling water. I experience its energy pervading every part of my being, and I am filled with lightness and joy.
Just by the spring is a deep, clear pool. The sun is hot and I long for a swim. So I take off my clothes and step into the pool. The water flows gently around me and I know that it has the power to heal me. As I float in the pool, I imagine that the water flows through every one of my body cells and in between them. As it does this, it cleanses and heals each one of them. I experience the purity of the refreshing spring water; its purity becomes my purity, its energy my energy. Finally I become one with the flowing spring, the fount itself, where all is possible and life is forever new.
I float peacefully across to the other side of the pool, and as I climb out, the golden sunlight warms and heals me. There is a beautiful robe lying on a grassy bank, which I put on. As I do this I know that I bring with me into the world a special resource: the power of the healing spring.
Joy and laughter
One book that left a deep impression on me was by an American medical journalist called Norman Cousins: Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by a Patient. He lay dangerously ill in hospital with an incurable disease of the connective tissue and was in chronic pain. He had a sense that his condition had probably been triggered by adrenal exhaustion, caused by stress, frustration and suppressed anger. Clearly his endocrine system (consisting of the ductless glands that secrete hormones into the bloodstream) had become severely disrupted. If negative emotions could affect his body in this way, what effect would positive emotions have? Perhaps, he reasoned, love, hope, faith, confidence and laughter could help restore his endocrine system to balanced functioning, which in turn would help fight the disease. He already had faith and love, but what about laughter? There is nothing remotely funny about lying on your back in agony with a death sentence hanging over you. He managed to borrow some amusing 'Candid Camera' films and a projector. He then made the amazing discover that ten minutes of real belly laughter gave him two glorious hours of pain free sleep. In addition, the nurse read him extracts from humorous books. After each episode of laughter, tests showed a slight reduction in inflammation. Eventually he recovered completely, and became known as the man who laughed his way back to health.
It has recently been discovered that laughter releases hormones in the brain called endorphins. These are opiate-like substances that actively relieve pain and inhibit the emotional response to it, thus lessening suffering also. Even more fascinating is the recent realization that cells of the immune system have minute receptors for hormones. Dr Nicholas D. Plotnikoff of the University of Illinois has found that if the level of enkephalins (similar to endorphins) is altered in cancer and AIDS patients, then their immune responses are simultaneously enhanced or decreased. The therapeutic effects of natural opioids, and therefore of laughter, are thus well demonstrated.
So the learning from this is never to despise anything that makes you chuckle, however silly it may appear. Indulge in jokes and good humour as much as possible, for they will give your immune defences a boost and can only do you good!
I decided to increase my laughter quotient as part of my get-well programme, tuned in to comedy shows on TV, went to see amusing plays and films, hired funny videos, took humorous books out of the library, shared jokes with friends, and browsed through books of cartoons. Each time I had a good belly laugh, I imagined my hormones interacting with my immune cells and giving them increased vigour. I also noticed what a wonderful antidote this was to stress.
Letting your heart sing
Part of the work with my counsellor involved reconnecting with my creativity. I used to play the cello, but it had been left abandoned in its dusty case for far too long. Since being diagnosed with cancer, I had realised that I had become totally out of balance with myself. The only part that was regularly in use was my intellect, while spontaneity, fun and free expression all seemed to have got lost somewhere. W.H. Auden wrote a moving poem about cancer in which he described it as 'foiled creative fire'.
A leading endocrinologist in Romania, Ana Aslan, has concluded that creativity produces brain impulses that stimulate the endocrine system via the pituitary gland. As we have seen, the flow of hormones is directly linked to immunity. We are all capable of creativity, but so often we neglect or ignore our inborn talents. It matters little how modest those talents are, for it is the process that counts. My counsellor encouraged me to do whatever made my heart sing. So I returned to cello playing with enthusiasm. Each time I allowed my fingers to explore the strings and let those deep velvety tones vibrate through me, I knew I was sending 'I want to live' messages to my body.
Some good news
Moreover, by letting in the love, laughter and creativity, and by eating healthily and keeping stress levels low, I knew that I could continue to keep myself well. Not only has positive thinking helped me to stay healthy, it has added a warmth and richness to my life never previously dreamed of.
Harmony Magazine 1998