Perhaps many of you have heard the story about the child who cured his cancer by visualizing pacman gobbling up ghosts. Or the anti-feminist housewife who visualized her cancer as dirt that needed to be vacuumed. Being immersed neck-deep in the biomedical establishment, this isn’t the sort of thing I typically go for. But, my immersion is only neck deep, and my tumor was very much above the neck. So, I have made an exception and am exploring some of the mind-body connections, specifically – directed visualizations as a technique for promoting wellness and fighting cancer. I’ve purchased a pair of books on the subject from Amazon, and they’ll arrive tomorrow. Meanwhile, I have several very good reasons for following this thread:
1. I KNOW these techniques work, empirically. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had episodic migraines my entire life, and my Mom (bless her) taught me biofeedback and visualization techniques to control the pain and nausea. Pretty simple when you get the hang of it, actually. In my case, I just need to control my breathing really well and concentrate very hard on visualizing the vessels in my head relaxing. All you need is concentration and practice. It works very well, better than Excedrin.
2. I KNOW these techniques work, even for cancer. Besides the anecdotal evidence above, they’ve done case/control studies and have shown that survival time against some really nasty breast cancers is doubled by these techniques. That Lancet paper I cite, by the way, has been cited 2700 times. That’s a career for lots of people.
3. I made a promise to my girls that I would do everything possible to fight this. And I always keep my promises to children. If there’s a 1% chance these techniques can improve my chances by 1%, I’ll take it, happily. Sports analogy: In basketball, the team with better, bigger, faster players will usually win, but in a close match when it may come down to the last possession, you want to make sure you jump on top of every loose ball.
4. A non-placebo mechanism for how this works isn’t beyond imagination. I just had a large glioma cut out of my brain: as we speak, microglia cells are cleaning up the mess, presumably presenting tons of tumor antigen on their MHCs. What we really want is for them to recruit Natural Killer (NK) cells and CD8+ T-cells to the injury site, to kill off any residual tumor cells that escaped surgery. I’m comforted that there are good chemo and radiations options available to me, and even another surgery is possible if necessary. But all the same, I’d just as soon win the battle here and now, and have the tumor not re-grow. It’s not beyond the reach of my imagination that if I can control the behavior of blood vessels during migraines through concentration, I can also control circulation of lymphocytes to the lesion in my brain.
I’m adding some meditation (15′ x 3) to my daily regimen that currently includes (1) 3-5 miles per day of walking, (2) light weight training with resistance bands, (3) Bach, (4) guitar, (5) Lumocity, (6) Brain Baseline, (7) good books, (8) this blog. Going with a winning formula, I’m using my same migraine tricks to control my breathing, and imagining every NK cell and T-cell in my body on a bee-line to the site of residual tumor cells. Even though there are some tricks that gliomas play to evade immune detection, I’m optimistic if enough immune cells show up to the party, they’ll do their duty, especially with all the tumor antigens being gobbled up and presented by microglia post-op. Also helpful, according to the people that write books on this subject, is direct visualization of cancer cells being destroyed by the immune system. For your and my viewing pleasure, I’ve added a few here. Seriously: Fuck cancer, let’s play some offense. Jing, my lovely, and loving wife, has printed the NK cell image above and framed it for me. It’s currently the first thing I see when I wake up and the last thing I see when I go to bed. But as cool as scanning electron micrographs of immune cells fucking up cancer is (and it’s pretty hard to be cooler than that), I thought a metaphor would be an appropriate and effective addition to the mix. Something like the Pacman visual discussed above. Of course, I’m not really a video game person, and as far as I can tell, one of the rules of visualization is that it has to be personal, and you have to be able to image it in your mind intensely and vividly. I am, however, a big fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and have been since long before this tumor decided to set up shop in my frontal lobe (which may have been 10+ years ago, ugh!). So, returning to heroic Theoden, I thought the Ride of the Rohirrim would be appropriate. First, I’ve seen this movie probably a dozen times and have read the book at least five times, and I’ve been viscerally moved every time. I can play it backwards and forwards in my mind. Second, it’s the perfect metaphor. For those who aren’t total LOTR geeks, a brief recap: Sauron (BAAD) is besieging the citadel of Minas Tirith (my brain) with an army of orcs (tumor cells). The orcs are ugly and disorganized, and some even look a little bit like a glioma (see nearby image). The Rohirrim , led by King Theoden, bring 6,000 heavy cavalry to the rescue of a besieged city filled with women and children. If you can come up with a more stirring metaphor to visualize, I’d love to hear it. Meanwhile, if anyone else wants to meditate on tumor cells being killed by immune cells (or even better, figure out ways to make it happen more efficiently) I’d be delighted to have you join my nightly exercises in spirit. An interesting aside: the siege of Gondor was loosely based in J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination on the Battle of Britain, a historical reference I made earlier in a post on Cancer Resolutions. Before the “Our Finest Hour” speech, Churchill delivered the “Fight them on the Beaches” speech: “we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills“. F’ing A, Winston, F’ing A. If that means 45 minutes per day of meditation, and some books on my shelf I’m not real proud of five years from now, so be it.