When the patient came to the University of Oregon Medical School, he was barely alive. The 61-year-old man was suffering from a particularly deadly form of throat cancer. His weight had dropped from 130 pounds to 98 pounds. He could barely swallow, and could breathe only with great difficulty. Doctors who examined him gave him less than a five percent chance of living five more years. They even debated among themselves the ethics of giving him cancer treatment, which might only cause him more pain without doing anything to alleviate his illness.
But one of the doctors, Carl Simonton, thought the patient might have a chance. As a cancer specialist, Simonton had begun to wonder if there might not be some connection between mental states and physical health. He had noticed in the course of his practice that some people seemed to exert some level of control of their disease. What made these patients different from other cancer victims was, Simonton said in Getting Well Again (1978), "in their attitude toward their disease and their positive stance toward life."
Simonton had become sensitized to this curious phenomenon by his wife, Stephanie, a psychologist who had studied individuals who were unusually successful in life. Together the couple had studied various motivational techniques, and they learned that a principal component of them is the practice of visual imagery. In due course they started to wonder if such a practice could regenerate not only the spirit but the body as well.
The visual imagery process involves the individual’s setting aside a period for relaxation, during which he or she conjures up a mental image depicting a desired result or goal. This exercise is done at least once a day, for anywhere from five minutes to half an hour. Whatever he or she wants to happen is envisioned as a consistent image (either literal or symbolic).
Millions of Energy Bullets
Dr. Simonton took the patient aside and explained to him what he had in mind. He said he wanted the man to put aside three different periods a day lasting between five and fifteen minutes each. The first period started upon waking, the second at noon, and the third before bedtime. The patient spent each period sitting quietly and thinking of the muscles in his body. He would start at the head and go all the way to the soles of his feet, telling each set of muscles to relax. When this had been accomplished, he would be free of physical and emotional distractions.
Then he was to imagine himself in a pleasant place, perhaps under a tree by a quietly flowing creek. At that point he would think of his cancer, using whatever image he wished to symbolize it. Simonton then directed the man to think of his treatment, radiation therapy, as a million tiny bullets of energy piercing through every cell that came in their path. While the healthy cells would recover from this attack, the cancer cells would be too weak to repair themselves and would die.
The last image was to be of the patient’s white blood cells swarming over the dead and dying cancer cells, carrying them off and flushing them out of his body through the liver and kidneys. At the conclusion of the vision, he would visualize his cancer as it continually decreased in size.
Simonton was astonished to witness what happened next.
The patient went through radiation therapy with practically no negative side effects. Soon he was eating again. His strength and weight returned. And the cancer disappeared.
He told Simonton that he had missed only one imagery session, and that had happened because a friend with whom he’d gone for a drive had gotten stuck in a traffic jam. This experience upset the patient because he feared losing control over his situation.
After two months of Simonton’s mental-imagery program, plus conventional therapy, all signs of cancer were gone. Toward the end of the treatment, the patient told Simonton, "Doctor, in the beginning I needed you in order to get well. Now I think you could disappear and I would still make it on my own."
As if to prove it, he went on to treat other ailments from which he suffered. The first of these was arthritis, with which he had been afflicted for many years. In his mind he pictured his white blood cells smoothing over the joint surfaces of his arms and legs; as the cells passed over, they carried away debris, leaving the surfaces smooth and glistening. His arthritic symptoms declined. Although they still flared up from time to time, he was always able to diminish them so that they did not get in the way of anything he wanted to do, especially stream fishing??"a rigorous sport even for those without arthritis.
Another problem he was able to overcome was impotence, which had effectively ended his sex life 20 years earlier. Using visualization exercises, he was able to resume full sexual activity within a few weeks.
Simonton emphasized that this story, while certainly dramatic, was hardly unique in his experience as a physician dealing with cancer patients. "Although it sometimes made no difference in the illness," he wrote, "in most cases it made significant changes in patients’ responses to treatment."
Wanting to precisely and scientifically measure the effectiveness of visualization in cancer treatment, Simonton and his wife worked with a group of 159 patients, all diagnosed as suffering from medically incurable malignant cancer. All were expected to die within 12 months. Four years later, 63 patients were still alive; 14 of them exhibited no evidence of cancer; and 12 others were seeing their tumors shrinking. Even the patients who had died, however, had lived 112 times longer than patients in a control group not using visualization alongside medical treatment.
It should be emphasized here that the Simontons and their patients were not using visualization alone. It was being used in association with conventional medical treatment, whose effectiveness the Simonton’s believed could be enhanced if combined with the kind of positive mental attitude visualization is intended to inspire.
In addition to relieving some of the physical distress of the cancer illness, Dr. Simonton found that visualization improved the general quality of the patients’ lives. Many of the patients regained their energies so sufficiently that they resumed a level of personal activity comparable to what they had experienced before they got sick. As Simonton concluded his findings:
An active and positive participation can influence the onset of the disease, the outcome of treatment, and the quality of life …. Expectancy, positive or negative, can play a significant role in determining an outcome. A negative expectation will prevent the possibility of disappointment, but it may also contribute to a negative outcome that was not inevitable.