Healing Cancer with NLP
“NLP approach to successfully healing up to 95% of clients with cancer. The high success rate at the Centre is achieved by a structured use of visualisation, affirmation, belief change and attitudinal (metaprogram) change, as well as the core chi kung exercises.”
Part A: A Research Based Approach To Mind-Body Healing Of Cancer By: Dr Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett
Successes and Failures in Healing
We have a strong personal interest in assisting people to heal from cancer. Like most NLP based health practitioners, we have seen clients heal cancer using NLP processes, and we have also seen clients die from cancer. However we know that cancer can be healed using mind-body processes, and it can be healed on a consistent basis. We are talking about a research study based on over 300,000 people which shows over 95% effectiveness. The methods used in the world’s largest study on medicine-free healing of cancer are almost entirely familiar to NLP Practitioners, with one key exception.
In the first part of this article we will document the research into these methods, and explain their basis in immunology. In the second part of the article, we describe a format for the effective healing of cancer and similar life threatening illnesses. We will also explain the one process which we consider is missing in current NLP treatment formats, and suggest an answer to one of the most disturbing questions in NLP: “If NLP is so good, why do so many of our clients with cancer not improve?”.
Over this century, health professionals in the west rediscovered the incredible power of the mind to heal the body. The first research demonstrating this in relation to cancer treatment was published by Dr Carl and Stephanie Simonton from Dallas Texas, in their book Getting Well Again (1978). Working with 159 people considered to have medically incurable cancer (average life expectancy 12 months) the Simontons reported two years later that 14 clients had no evidence of cancer at all, 29 had tumours which were stable or regressing, and almost all had lived well beyond the 12 month “limit” (p 11-12). Essentially, 10% were cured and 20% were curing themselves. The Simontons used a combination of biofeedback, visualisation, exercise, goalsetting, resolving internal conflicts, letting go of resentment, and engaging family support. They explained their success based on psychoneuroimmunology (the way the mind affects the nervous system which in turn affects the immune system).
In Mind-Body Therapy (1988) Ernest Rossi and David Cheek provided another coherent model for achieving this success, using ideodynamic communication (hypnotic communication with the unconscious mind). The publication of Beliefs (1990) by Robert Dilts, Tim Hallbom and Suzi Smith offered an NLP frame for understanding the same processes. This book begins with Dilts’ breathtaking account of his mother healing from cancer after 4 days of NLP to change limiting beliefs and resolve internal conflicts. Six years later, Ian McDermott and Joseph O’Connor published NLP And Health (1996), a thorough review of how NLP techniques can be used to mobilise the immune system to maintain health and heal illness.
These models are exciting, and they still leave us with the question, “What about the other 70% in the Simontons’ studies?”. In the field of complementary healing, including in the NLP community, we have sometimes encountered a fear of statistical research. This is related in our experience to a kind of incongruity amongst “healers”, who know that their methods only sometimes deliver the success they are advertising. Basically, they don’t want to talk about (or even think about) the majority of their previous clients, who did not get cured. It is true that for individual clients, statistics are deceptive. If your cancer heals, it heals, and so you have not 10% success but 100% success. For us as NLP Practitioners though, our interest is also in shifting a larger group of people into the situation of being fully cured. We set goals, and for us the statistics do count. Later in this article, we will describe a methodology which could increase the Simontons’ success fourfold.
What Is Cancer?
First, let us be clear that NLP techniques are already associated with cancer cure. New Zealand NLP Master Practitioner Anthony Wightman (1999, p 42) describes his successful treatment of skin cancer and of leukemia with skills developed during his NLP Practitioner training. He imagined a laser burning out the cancer cells, and filled his body with “a golden glow which imbued all cells with health and removed any unhealthy cells”. He ran an imaginary hot iron over the inside of the vein next to the skin cancer to stop any spread and bleeding when it dropped out (which it actually did a week after he began visualising). Before treating his skin cancer, he had it diagnosed by 3 separate doctors, all of whom claimed after his cure that they must have misdiagnosed a solar keratosis. His hematologist had a somewhat more difficult job explaining the change in his leukemia. Anthony says “I believe we are only scratching the surface of our own capabilities and that the most promising area for research lies within our own minds, our own hearts, our own souls.”
To understand what Anthony has done, it’s useful to know how the body normally keeps its cells healthy (Greer, 1999, p 236-241). Your body’s cells don’t just hold standardised genetic information about who you are. They also need to monitor where in your body they are, so they know what their particular job is within that whole community of cells. The cells in your skin, for example, need to know that they are skin cells. They do this partially by checking what cells are around them. If a cell has its genetic instructions damaged repeatedly, however, it can lose track of where it is and what job it is meant to be doing. This can happen due to toxic chemicals, radiation, or “free radicals” (chemicals which result from normal body oxidation, and accumulate with age). If a cell is damaged enough to lose track of where it fits in the community of cells, it is then described as more “undifferentiated” looking, and it may start dividing randomly, instead of at the rate needed to replace itself. It could then be described as a cancer cell. Actually, before reaching this stage, genetic damage is usually repaired. This is a possibility not often discussed in oncology (cancer treatment). However, the body is usually capable of repairing genetic damage unless there is some interference or inhibition of the immune response. Psychological depression has been shown to be one factor which inhibits such repair (Kiecolt-Glaser, 1985).
The body expects cancer cells to appear occasionally, and certain white blood cells (lymphocytes) have the function of identifying these confused cells and marking them out so that other lymphocytes (for example “T cells” from the Thymus gland) can eliminate them. In case you were disturbed about the idea of eliminating cells, it’s useful to know that every time you swallow, the inner lining of your mouth releases millions of cells which were past their “use by” date. “Recycling” might be a better term for this constant change of cells in the body, and the elimination of cancer cells is just another example of this. A disorder such as AIDS, that stops lymphocytes working, tends to result in the appearance of numerous cancers in the body. This suggests that normal, healthy bodies generate occasional cancer cells, and normal, healthy lymphocytes recycle those cancer cells naturally. The lymphocytes are the embodiment of an “immune system” which protects you from both external invasion and internal mistakes. Even when a cancer has developed beyond the level of one aberrant cell, this immune system continues to protect you. Increased number of killer cells and increased level of activity is strongly associated in research with the cancer being contained in one place, rather than spreading, and with cancer ceasing to reoccur after treatment (Mandeville et alia, 1982; Burford-Mason et alia, 1989).
In 1979, a crisis occurred at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in California, where nuclear arms were being developed. A very high incidence of small skin pre-cancers and melanomas was found in staff. Virtually all were easily removed surgically. Dr Lydia Temoshok investigated the outbreak and determined that, in fact, the incidence was probably not higher than usual. The staff had been examined “with a fine tooth comb” and small lesions, which would otherwise have been eliminated by the immune system, were detected by the physicians. (Temoshok and Dreher, 1992, p 211). Biophysics researcher Dr Candace Pert (who discovered endorphins) says “It’s a fact that every one of us has a number of tiny cancerous tumours growing in our bodies at every moment. The part of the immune system that is responsible for the destruction of these errant cells do their job well and these tiny tumours never grow large enough to cause us to become ill.” (1999, p 192).
How Can We Help The Immune System?
Supporting the body’s immune system assists in the healing of cancer. We consider this to be the core of what NLP contributes to cancer treatment. Interestingly, very little advice is given by many oncologists (cancer specialists) about how to assist the immune system. Furthermore, many orthodox cancer treatments compromise the immune system by removing endocrine glands and lymphatic nodes, or by killing lymphocytes (both radiotherapy and chemotherapy lower lymphocyte levels). That doesn’t mean that orthodox treatments are “wrong”; simply that they don’t focus on building up the immune system, and in the final analysis the immune system is what we depend on to heal from and prevent cancer. NLP provides an effective model for enhancing immune response. This is useful both as an adjunct to orthodox treatment, and as an alternative choice where orthodox treatment has little expected success.
As always in NLP, we could benefit by being curious about people who are already successful in the way we desire to be. Dr Brendan O’Regan is a neurochemist who has collected a database of 3,500 medically documented cases of spontaneous remission of cancer. Dr Charles Weinstock leads the New York Psychosomatic Study group, and has commented on these cases that “Within a short period before the remission, ranging from days to a few months, there was an important change, such as a marriage, an ordination, the birth of a grandchild, or removal of a relationship that was unwanted. There was a psychosocial rehabilitation of one sort or another, and then the cancer was healed.” (Weinstock, 1997).
There are two ways in which processes like NLP have been shown to promote this kind of shift in immune function. The first is by therapeutically changing the person’s general state and attitude to life events. Research shows that bereavement and experimentally induced negative mood states both inhibit the body’s lymphocyte production (Bartrop et alia 1977, Schleifer et alia 1983, Futterman et alia, 1994). Sustained grief and depression, then, are states which increase the risk of cancer. Any intervention which enables the person to let go of such negative states will have a positive effect on healing. Also, a proactive style of coping with stress is associated with enhanced T cell activity (Goodkin et alia, 1992). That is to say, when someone is in a state where they feel in charge of their life, and as if they are making choices about their future, a check of their T cells will show that these cells are more actively eliminating cancer cells. Research also shows that lymphocyte activity can be anchored using NLP anchoring (classical conditioning) techniques (Buske-Kirschbaum, 1992). This state of being in control of life, with the resultant improved immune response, can be anchored and enhanced like any state.
Short term educational psychotherapy can also increase both the percentage of T cells and their activity, by teaching the person how to respond resourcefully (Fawzy et alia, 1990, and 1993). These improvements due to short term therapy continue to intensify up to 6 months after the psychotherapy! On the other hand, longer term, problem focused psychotherapy may have a negative effect on survival. Psychologist Dr Hans Eysenck has warned of the dangers of traditional psychotherapy for some time. He describes a longitudinal study of 7000 inhabitants of Heidelberg, from 1973 to 1986. This study was designed to discover the health effects of psychotherapy. Clients in psychotherapy were able to be matched by age, sex, type and amount of smoking etc with controls. This study showed that cancer and heart disease were most prevalent in the group who had had two years or more of “therapy”, less frequent in the group who had one year or more in “therapy”, and least frequent in the group who had no “therapy” (Eysenck, 1992). Talking about what’s wrong with life once a week for years is not healthy.
The second way in which NLP style interventions can promote immune function is by directly “instructing” the lymphocytes to do their job more effectively. This instruction is achieved by the person imagining their lymphocytes identifying and eliminating cancer cells. A metaphorical representation may be used; for example seeing the lymphocytes as hungry fish clearing weeds from a lake. People with cancer who are taught relaxation and guided imagery show significantly higher T cell activity than controls (Walker, 1997). Nicholas Hall, at the University of South Florida, describes a study in which he found that lymphocytes from women with breast cancer who did guided imagery, were both more effectively duplicating themselves and more effectively dissolving and engulfing cancer cells (Batt, 1994, p151). The effect of visualisation is so precise that when students are taught to imagine their lymphocytes doing one specific activity (in the research, they imagined the lymphocytes adhering to other cells better) then that specific activity will be enhanced and not others! (Hall et alia, 1992). How do scientists get these research results, which have been replicated with a number of different types of cancer? They actually take lymphocytes out of the person’s body and place them in a test tube next to cancer cells from that same person. What is perhaps most amazing is to realise that once the cells have been “given their instructions” by visualisation, they continue to follow them even when removed from the body, or even after several months in the body.
It’s also important to understand that there are more than 100 different forms of cancer, ranging from cancers which are almost certain to be solved by simple surgery (such as many skin cancers) to cancers which are very difficult to treat using conventional methods. Much of the research on psychological alteration of immune response (eg lymphocyte reactions) has been done with easily treatable cancers such as early stage breast cancer and melanoma, where orthodox treatments are likely to be highly successful anyway. On the other hand, much of the research on the clinical effectiveness of psychological interventions (how likely they are to result in cure or longer-term survival in “real life”) has been done with somewhat more serious cases. This is because when simple surgical cure is available, not many clients are willing to risk being in a long term clinical trial of an untested visualisation technique. For the Simontons’ patients, however, psychological treatments offered an otherwise unavailable hope.
Clinical data from other studies of clients with more serious cancer has supported the Simontons’ work. Even one session a week of cognitive therapy improved survival for women with late stage breast cancer by 18 months and resulted in 6% surviving to see the research published ten years later (all the control group died within 4 years; see Spiegel, 1989). Similar results have been achieved in other groups with late stage breast cancer (Kogon et alia, 1997), malignant melanoma (Fawzey et alia, 1993) and leukemia (Richardson et alia, 1990). While merely increasing survival time is not our aim, these results are often as significant as the results of palliative chemotherapy treatment, without the distressing side effects. We can expect that the same psychological techniques have even more power with smaller, more contained and easily treatable cancers, while respecting the inappropriateness of doing clinical trials on these operable cancers.
Evidence to the Contrary?
The most famous attack on the value of psychosocial approaches to cancer treatment came in 1990 with the publication of research on women with breast cancer at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre in England. The report, published in the medical journal The Lancet (Bagenal et alia, 1990), suggested that women who used the visualisation, meditation, exercise, nutritional and social support offered by the centre actually had lower survival rates than controls. A group of women involved with the centre immediately challenged flaws in the research methodology, pointing out (for example) that the Bristol women had more advanced tumours than the control group, and were in a different age range with a higher risk of cancer metastasis.
They suggested that the study was a deliberate attempt to discredit complementary cancer treatments. The women’s struggle, lead to the researchers admitting to “flaws”, the Charity Commission criticising the research they had funded, and the Royal College of Physicians setting up a “fraud squad”. Their story is told in the book “Fighting Spirit” (Goodare ed, 1996). We mention it here because oncologists sometimes still remember the original study, rather than the controversy that essentially invalidated it. It reminds us that even something published in a reputable medical journal may be based on assumptions that are limited or even on simple mistakes.
Mobilising The Immune System To Protect Against Cancer
Many of the studies described previously refer to the effect of mood and life attitudes on lymphocyte responses. These results are most likely related to research which suggests that there are two key psychological factors associated with the development of cancer: 1) loss of a crucial relationship perceived as a “reason for living”, and 2) unexpressed hostility. In one study, 72% of cancer patients were identified as having lost a crucial relationship recently as compared to 12% of controls. In the same study, 47% of cancer patients were rated as having unexpressed hostility, as compared to 25% of controls. This enabled a researcher to predict which clients were likely to have cancer with 95% accuracy, simply based on these two variables. The probability that this number of correct predictions would occur by chance was less than one in a thousand. (LeShan, 1984, p 26-27).
One aim of NLP treatment for cancer will be removing these two variables (loss of reason for living, and unexpressed hostility), and improving the person’s state by:
Creating a sense of mission.
Setting future goals aligned with that mission.
Healing grief and depression.
Letting go of resentment and anger.
Learning skills to express emotion effectively.
Resolving internal and external conflicts.
Developing a proactive coping style rather than a passive/helpless one.
To state this more positively, we might say that the existence of cancer is a message from the person’s immune system, telling them that they need to let go of certain stressful emotions, resolve internal conflicts, and create a life worth living. The only risk of this model for understanding illness is that it suggests that the continued existence of cancer cells presupposes an ongoing parts conflict. When clients do not immediately have their cancer dissolve as a result of using parts integration, Time Line Therapy. techniques, re-imprinting, core transformation etc, NLP Practitioners then tend to ask “What’s wrong?” In fact, nothing may be wrong. Some people take time to heal (see the description of Zhineng Chi Kung below). The most useful response may be to continue visualising healing. If someone has had difficulty spelling, and we do the trauma cure on all their distressing memories of spelling, we don’t necessarily ask “What’s wrong?” just because they misspell another word. We tend to accept that their brain is learning the new process. A similar acceptance may be useful here.
NLP treatment can also teach the person how to visualise the immune system responding effectively to cancer. Dilts, Hallbom and Smith (1990, p 153-156) express concern about the use of visualisation which encourages a “war” metaphor, saying that it may encourage internal parts conflict. They propose instead the use of images such as sheep grazing on weeds. The Simontons’ research revealed that certain factors made visualisation more successful in healing cancer (Simonton et alia, 1980, p 136-160). These factors included:
Learning how to relax fully.
Visualising the cancer cells as weak and confused rather than “aggressive”.
Visualising the lymphocytes as numerous, powerful, energetic and ready to eliminate or recycle cancer cells.
Associating into the experience of being your lymphocytes.
Visualising cancer treatments as powerful and positive, with any side damage to healthy cells being easily repaired.
Seeing yourself reaching your life’s purpose and achieving goals as a result of healing.
Beliefs and Representations of Healing
Creating these internal representations of healing is closely related to the notion of generating a placebo effect by creating a belief that healing can occur. However, there is a subtle difference. The person does not need to absolutely “believe” in the internal representations for them to work. They simply need to be willing to make the representations consistently. Dr David C. McClelland and Carol Kirshnit of Boston University have published a study which clearly explains this, while demonstrating that caring is another significant emotional state for immune responsiveness (McClelland and Kirshnit, 1988). In this research, subjects are shown a variety of movies, and their level of Immunoglobulin A (a blood chemical which is the first line of defence against viruses and other pathogens) is monitored before and after. Gardening films and political propaganda have no effect, but a film of Mother Teresa caring for people in Calcutta caused a sharp rise in levels of the immune chemical. Interestingly, many of the subjects in this study, when questioned after, said that they did not approve of Mother Teresa and doubted the genuineness of her work. But their bodies didn’t mind. Their immunity level rose anyway. The fact that they had held the internal representations of caring in their mind was more important than the theories they considered about it.
Psychologist Bruno Klopfer (1957) cites perhaps the most famous example of the healing power of belief in the story of an American cancer patient named Mr. Wright. Mr. Wright had a extremely advanced lymph sarcoma; a cancer which had spread via the lymph system through his whole body. Because his life expectancy was less than three months, Mr. Wright did not qualify for treatment with an experimental new drug called Krebiozen, being tested at the hospital. However Mr. Wright believed that Krebiozen was his one hope. He pleaded with Dr Klopfer until the doctor finally agreed to give him a test injection.
The result was miraculous. In a few days the orange-sized tumours, which had spread through his body, were half the size. Within ten days, Klopfer had agreed to give him the full test treatments, and Mr. Wright was well enough to leave the hospital. In two weeks he had moved from surviving only with an intravenous drip and oxygen mask, to flying home, piloting his own plane. However after two months of perfect health, Mr. Wright read the newspaper reports on the Krebiozen treatments. The tests were a failure; Krebiozen had no measurable effect. In a few days the tumours had regrown and Mr. Wright was again given only weeks to live. At this point, Dr Klopfer decided to experiment. He told Mr. Wright that the original tests were done with poor quality Krebiozen, and a new super-refined, double strength product was now available. He then began a series of injections of “super Krebiozen” (really using pure water). Mr. Wright’s second recovery was even faster. Again, he flew away, symptom-free. His beliefs had cured him.
Supporting The Immune System Physically: Diet
There are many things that can be done to support the immune system physically of course. Dietary change is a fairly obvious intervention to enhance immune response. The association between cigarette smoking and cancer production is now well known, but that between alcohol consumption and cancer (Lundberg and Passik, 1997) is less well known yet equally concerning. The importance of consuming a diet based on fruit and vegetables to increase antioxidant levels (antioxidants such as vitamin C and E prevent cancer causing damage to cells) is quite well known.
The importance of shifting to Omega 3 and Omega 9 fatty acids, rather than the Omega 6 fatty acids found in most margarines or cooking oils (Rose, 1997) is less widely understood, but thoroughly researched. Omega 9 fatty acids are found in Olive oil and Canola oil. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in fish and shellfish oils (such as the New Zealand shellfish oil Lyprinol) and in linseed (flax seed) oil. Dr Lilian Thompson in Toronto has been giving her cancer patients 25 grams of ground linseed a day (in a muffin) and producing a consistent reduction in tumour size in the 1-3 weeks between diagnosis and surgery to remove the cancer. This is a greater reduction in tumour size than seen with chemotherapy, and produced by a completely safe, enjoyable dosage of an ordinary food. Omega 3 fatty acids seem to enter the tissue and create an environment which nourishes the immune system (Block, 1999, p 247).
Many alternative approaches to cancer treatment are based on a belief that cancer is a systemic disorder caused by the body’s inability to detoxify itself. While detoxification can be a useful process, the use of rigorous “detoxifying” diets, enemas and herbal remedies (such as the formula developed by Harry Hoxsey, 1901-1974) is not in itself a proven cure for cancer. However some of the particular plants in the Hoxsey formula (red clover, burdock, buckthorn, barberry, licorice etc) are beginning to deliver research results for other reasons. Red clover, for example, is a rich source of phyto-oestrogens (a type of antioxidant also found in soy products) which appear to protect against hormone related cancers such as breast cancer and prostate cancer (Ingram, 1997). Furthermore, evidence linking chemical additives in food to cancer (eg see Wolff, 1993) also suggests that “detoxifying the body”, by removing these additives gently, makes sense.
Supporting The Immune System Physically: Mobilising Body Energy
In China, as in the west, orthodox medicine co-exists with a number of complementary systems for healing. One of these is the 5000 year old science of Chi Kung (Qigong). “Chi” refers to body energy of the type demonstrated in EEG measures of brain waves and ECG measures of heart function. Practitioners of Chi Kung claim to be able to direct body energy in order to cause specified effects in cells, including enhancing the activity of lymphocytes and removing cancer cells.
At the First World Conference For Academic Exchange of Medical Qigong in Beijing in 1988, a large number of research studies on the effects of chi kung on cancer cells in culture, and clinical cancer results were presented. Generally, these studies used “emitted chi” which means that a Chi Kung Practitioner held their hands near the cells to be altered and intentionally sent bio-electrical energy to the cells. In one large set of studies, 20 minutes of chi treatment of cancer cells killed 13% to 36% of cells, while control cells that were simply held showed no effect (Feng Li-da et alia, 1988). In another, cancer spread in mice was reduced markedly by the use of emitted chi (Cao Xuetao et alia, 1988). In a third study, mice which had their immune system suppressed by cortisone were divided into groups and rechecked after 24 hours. Those who received emitted chi had lymphocyte numbers and other measures of immunity back to normal, while those untreated showed no improvement (Li Caixi et alia, 1988).
To date, the most dramatic clinical results of chi kung are reported by the Huaxia Zhineng Qigong Clinic and Training Centre in Qinhuangdao, China (formerly in Zigachong). We visited this centre in 1998. Founded by western trained physician Dr Pang Ming, it has over 600 staff, including 26 western trained doctors, and treats 4000-7000 people at any given time. Residents (called students because they are learning to use chi kung, rather than simply being “treated”) are checked medically after each 24 day treatment period. Most of the people treated have been told that there is no orthodox treatment available for their condition. Most of them have inoperable cancers. Results at the Centre are classified as:
Cured (no symptoms of illness, and no signs on EKG, ultrasound, X-ray, CT etc)
Very Effective (almost no symptoms, and dramatic improvement on instruments)
Effective (detectable improvements)
Ineffective (no change or even worsening symptoms)
In the centre’s first published results, (Huaxia Zhineng Centre, 1991; Chan, 1999, p vii) data on 7,936 students showed that 15.2% were cured, 37.68% very effective, and 42.09% effective. That is to say, after a month, 52% were cured or almost cured, and overall 95% had improved. Cure rates have been improving since then, as staff learn precisely how to get the best from their methods.
Furthermore, each week certain students with defined tumours are selected to have direct chi treatment by staff, the results being displayed on ultrasound and recorded on video. Luke Chan, the teacher who has taken Zhineng Chi Kung to the west (under the name Chi Lel‒2, see Chan, 1999) describes observing a session where 8 students are treated in this way. After less than one minute of treatment, 5 of these cancers actually disappeared immediately (and were undetectable at ten day followup) and one diminished.
The high success rate at the Centre is achieved by a structured use of visualisation, affirmation, belief change and attitudinal (metaprogram) change, as well as the core chi kung exercises. The work of the Huaxia Zhineng centre has replicated the western mind-body healing methods described previously and added an important new dimension. In doing so, it offers us a model for an integrated NLP approach to successfully healing up to 95% of clients with cancer. This approach will be explained in the second part of this article.