DR. UMA KRISHNASWAMY
With October being breast cancer month, a holistic approach against a framework of a mind-body connection may help patients cope with the disease better.Breast cancer is not an isolated and rigidly compartmentalised event occurring in a surgically dispensable organ
It is common place today to meet women who have had or have encountered breast cancer in their personal lives. With some memorable exceptions, many continue to be haunted by the spectre of disease and death.
A chat with some of these women leaves one stunned by the magnitude of negative emotions they harbour: anger against the disease, god, fate, family, friends and work place, to name but a few; frustration, depression, helplessness, lack of self-esteem, a sense of social stigma and, most of all, a paralysing fear that the disease will return and that suffering will be painful and prolonged and that death will be premature.
The medical establishment, for some unfathomable reason, portrays breast cancer as the “enemy”. “Let us kill the cancer !” some doctors say. While advising the patient to undergo a mastectomy, a doctor told one of my patients “Let me chop it off!” “Fight it!” say well meaning family members and friends. “She lost the battle against breast cancer,” people remark. Such military metaphors condition the patient to hate the disease and view one’s body as a killing field.
Does the medical profession encourage a patient with a potentially fatal heart attack to view the heart as a hateful enemy? Does a patient with a brain tumour view one’s brain as a killing field? On the contrary, these patients are actively encouraged to be calm and enhance the potential of the body to heal by healthy lifestyle changes.
Is military jargon the product of insensitivity or is it ignorance about the biological nature of breast cancer? Is the medical profession still clinging to the archaic visualisation of cancer as akin to an infection? Kill the organism producing the disease and “cure” the patient, never mind the “collateral damage”?
The evolving breast cancer paradigm incorporating concepts, such as tumour dormancy, tumour homeostasis, are holistic, giving us insights that breast cancer is not an isolated and rigidly compartmentalised event occurring in a surgically dispensable organ (the breast). There are, perhaps, subtle and, as yet, unfathomed cascade of changes affecting diverse vital functions of the genetic and immune system at a systemic level.
These changes are likely to be reversible, at least up to a point and may push the patient either towards an aggressively spreading cancer or towards a state of quiescence wherein the cancer remains in tranquil balance with the individual for years together, perhaps for the individual’s life-time.
If we are to scientifically analyse the impact of this endless tide of negative emotions that course through the patient’s mind, one is filled with disquiet. It is inevitable that this will lead to profound changes in the neuro-endocrine balance within the body. This, in turn, will have a massive negative impact on both the physical and mental health of the patient.
State of mind
It is worthwhile to ponder over the mind-body connection in this context. Dr. Deepak Chopra elegantly describes: “Your body is a 3-D projection of your current state of mind. Your slightest shift of mood is picked up by every cell, which means that you do not think with your brain alone — all 50 trillion cells in your body actively share your thoughts.” If 50 trillion cells are constantly thinking of disease, pbreast cancer is not an isolated and rigidly compartmentalised event occurring in a surgically dispensable organain and death, not to mention hatred and enmity, it is little wonder that many breast cancer patients live a living death; a state of mind constantly reinforced by the health sector that places patients in a straight jacket of frequent and unwarranted tests. Tests, if truth be told, which do little to enhance the quality or quantity of a patient’s life. The scientific practice of evidence-based medicine, alas, is not lucrative!
It is only the intellectually and emotionally mature woman who can withstand this onslaught with her sense of emotional balance and humour intact. Indeed it is a truism that a positive frame of mind and an ability to laugh allows these women to live life fully after breast cancer.
Breast cancer has an enigmatic biology. In some women the cancer is indolent, in some it is aggressive and in yet others, it may swing in behaviour between these two ends of the spectrum. What underpins such behaviour and how it can be modified is poorly understood and is a matter of intense speculation and experimentation within the scientific community.
Till the day science offers us that wisdom, it is best if women approach breast cancer holistically against the frame work of the mind-body connection and see the reductionistic perspectives of modern medicine for what it is. A cancer is merely a dynamic and unfavourable state within the body. By accepting it’s presence with equanimity and humour, one can perhaps nudge the systemic balance to a state of healthy equilibrium through the powerful medium of the mind. Perchance, this is the path to healing.