Cancer As A Turning Point: The Contributions of Lawrence LeShan, PhD
In Chinese, there is no word for crisis; the word that comes closest
consists of two symbols. One for danger; the other for opportunity.
"Getting cancer can become the beginning of living. The search for one's own being, the discovery of the life one needs to live, can be one of the strongest weapons against disease." Lawrence LeShan
Dr. Lawrence LeShan’s therapeutic methods have achieved extraordinary results with advanced cancer patients—irrespective of whatever physical healing choices they made. Over the past thirty years that he has been practicing his unique form of psychotherapy, approximately half of his cancer patients with poor prognoses have experienced long term remission and many are still alive. That is a powerful statement you may want to read again! Nearly all dramatically improved their emotional state and quality of life. Every cancer patient who wants to maximize his or her odds for survival should at least consider how LeShan’s approach might be incorporated into the conventional, complementary or alternative physical healing path they have chosen.
Dr. Lawrence LeShan has worked with cancer patients for over fifty years now and is referred to as “the father of mind-body therapy” by many in the field. He has been a research and clinical psychologist and is the author of more than a dozen books, including three excellent choices for cancer patients: Cancer As A Turning Point: A Handbook for Cancer Patients, Their Families and Health Professionals, You Can Fight For Your Life: Emotional Factors in the Treatment of Cancer, and How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery.”
Cancer as a Turning Point uses patient stories to show how to mobilize the cancer patient's self-healing abilities and to use them to augment whatever physical healing program the patient has chosen. The book comes out of a thirty-five year research project involving several thousand people with cancer. It is designed to teach cancer patients and their families, friends, physicians, clergymen, and psychotherapists how to use psychological change to help heal and strengthen the patient's compromised immune system.
In the beginning of his career, when he first began working with cancer patients, LeShan utilized the classic psychotherapeutic approach he was trained in, where the model was to uncover what was wrong with the patient and then determine what could be done about it. Was there something dark and hidden within the patient’s psyche? Could it be brought to light and either cured or compensated for?
This traditional analytic approach can have very positive effects with many types of mental, emotional and behavioral issues, but LeShan maintains that it did not prove helpful in mobilizing the immune system—something cancer patients must immediately accomplish if they are to survive. During the time he used this classical approach, almost none of his cancer patients survived their diagnosis longer that what had been predicted.
LeShan then began to shift his treatment method and his questions. He began to ask “What’s right with this person? What ways of being with themselves, with others and with the world will lead them to the greatest enthusiasm and satisfaction in their lives? What would provide a solid reason for being, the kind of meaning and purpose that makes us glad to get out of bed in the morning and glad to go to bed at night—the kind of life that makes us look forward zestfully to each day and to the future.
And having determined that together, he reasoned that he and his patient could begin to move toward embracing that way of being and creating that life. In effect, the definition of psychotherapy has been changed from removing the patient’s pain and reducing symptoms—to helping each patient find their own special “music” that will lead them to the “song” they came to sing in this lifetime. LeShan found that this process could be exhilarating for some and downright terrifying for others, but always beneficial in the end.
He describes the process in the following way:
"Let us suppose we say in effect to a patient that your Fairy Godmother will come in that door in a few minutes. She will make you an offer. In six months your inner and outer life can be exactly what you would like it to be so that you would use yourself most completely and have the maximum enjoyment and zest possible. You can change your feelings and your circumstances. There are no limitations on age, sex, education, and so forth. We shall assume that you choose good physical health as a basis and take it from there. There are only two catches. You must tell her in the next five minutes, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. She won't be back after granting your proposal……” You will have just described your heart’s deepest desire and where and how you would love to live."
“Therapy that is useful for mobilizing cancer patients' immune systems aims at discovering the answer to this question and understanding what has blocked its perception and/or its being lived out as a life-style. And then helping patients move toward it. Very often patients will respond with "I don't know" when asked how they would change their life. The goal then becomes having them accept that this is the most important question at this stage of their life. Mere acceptance of the question and a commitment to finding out the answer frequently have a positive effect on patients' immune systems. I have seen patients who began to respond better and more effectively to their medical protocol when they made and emotionally accepted the commitment.”
Releasing emotional blockages and pathologies is important when it is considered as part of the reason that an individual’s special “song” is not expressed, and as the cause of the patient’s loss of connection to enthusiasm and joy. Yet when people with cancer have been presented with this concept, LeShan has observed that there is generally strong resistance, and it usually falls into one or more of the following three types:
- If I found my own music, it would be so discordant that I wouldn't like it and no one else could stand it either. My own 'natural' way of being is ugly and repellent, and I learned a long time ago not to express it if I wanted to have any relationships or be able to live with myself."
- "If I found my own song and tried to sing it, I would find there was no place in this world for anyone like me." (The major variation here is "I couldn't support myself if I was living the song that is right for me.") "And it would be so bitter to know it and not be able to sing it that I'd rather not know."
- "My own song would have such contradictions built into it that it would be impossible." (As one patient put it, "I'd really like to be a hermit with a harem!")
LeShan goes on:
“In more than twenty-five years of using this approach, I have seen these reactions many, many times. Yet I have never seen a single person who, finding his or her own song and style, still felt the same. With all the people with whom I have worked, their own song was one that was acceptable to them and others, was possible to play fully in this culture (and to make a living at when this was necessary), and increased their human relationships and made them more fulfilling. In addition, in every case the song was socially positive and acceptable. I have never seen an exception to this.”
Something Within Us Yearns for Wider Vistas and Broader Skies
LeShan coaches patients to take control over their own life, to search for a lifestyle that truly suits them and expresses who they are—and then to begin to move toward creating that lifestyle. For most, this will entail a complete transformation of how they view themselves, no longer being motivated by what they “should” do, versus what they would enjoy doing. LeShan asks his patients to dig down and ask themselves: “What would truly fulfill me—what style of being, relating, creating would bring me to a life of zest and enthusiasm?” Time and again, he found that the answer to this question was the very thing that would most profoundly mobilize their immune system against cancer.
“Over and over again, I have seen one of two things happen when the total environment of the person with cancer is mobilized for life and his or her inner ecology is thereby changed in a positive way. For some, the patient's life is prolonged, not in an arbitrary way, but in order that there may be more experience of the self, self-recognition and the recognition—and often fulfillment—of dreams. And then there were the genuine miracles—not magic, but dedicated devotion and hard work which made the cancer a turning point in the person's life rather than a sign of its ending. The more we learn about human biology and psychology, the more we learn about how to change and improve the quality and ambiance of life both internal and external, the more this second result may become commonplace. And when it is time to die, we need to understand what our life was about, to know and accept who we have become.”
A Tale of Two Patients: How Psychological Change Can Mobilize a Compromised Immune System
The term “hopeless” should be banished from the cancer patient’s vocabulary.
There is ALWAYS hope!
Two of LeShan’s patient stories illustrate much of what has been related so far. Ethel had metastasized breast cancer and had been told by her doctors that she had approximately two months to live. She sought therapy to deal with her fear and to find out how to live until she died. It wasn’t difficult to uncover her secret dreams. Ethel had always wanted to travel, particularly on the ocean, and she had always felt she belonged at sea, jokingly saying that in a previous life, she must have been a sailor.
Her best memories from her life were the ten years she had worked in an exclusive clothing store—she had loved being a saleswoman there. Even then, she had pored over travel brochures and dreamed of cruises. She became a wife, then a mother and she put away her dreams for what she believed was the reality she was supposed to be living. Now that Ethel was a cancer patient, she was asked, “Why not travel now?” Her husband was dead, her children grown and independent. She replied that now she was sick and shouldn’t leave her excellent medical care. It didn’t take much convincing to get her to reconsider that rather bleak option. And so Ethel took all her life savings and booked a first class cabin on a long cruise—and off she went, with great excitement and anticipation.
Four months later she stormed into the doctor’s office and shouted, “Here, I’ve spent all my money. I’m broke—and I’m still alive!” She and the doctor began to laugh, as he pointed out the obvious alternative. He was later able to use his connections to get Ethel a job selling in a boutique on an ocean liner, creating a lifestyle which she absolutely loved. The cancer had shown no signs of increasing and slowly shrunk to about half its original size over the years. Ethel had no further medical treatments, but simply went forward, joyfully living a lifestyle that she found completely fulfilling and exciting. She sent the doctor a Christmas card every year—no matter where in the world she was.
Carol was another of Dr. LeShan's patients, a highly successful executive and VP in a large corporation. Her family was proud of her, her colleagues were envious. The only thing wrong was that Carol hated her life and everything about it. She despised the cutthroat tactics of people who succeeded in her world, she disliked the ruthless ambition of her colleagues, and she was afraid she might become like them at some point. In her late thirties, she developed six malignant melanomas on her back, and she was told her prognosis was extremely poor. Carol left the doctor’s office and immediately called LeShan to make an appointment, already committed to do whatever it took to heal.
She soon recognized how her negativity toward her lifestyle was hurting her. LeShan kept returning the focus from the negative to what she liked most in life. Was there any time she had deeply enjoyed her work, had felt at home, fulfilled and happy? When had she felt “the good tired” rather than the “yuck tired” at the end of the day? “When and where had she had those periods in which you suddenly look up, three hours have gone by, you missed lunch and never noticed?” He kept Carol coming back to these questions.
Soon she began to remember an experience during college when she had worked at a center for retraining physically handicapped adults who had been injured in accidents and were being re-taught living skills. She had been deeply involved in her work at the center and had loved it. Now she considered whether this type of work in special education would fulfill her in the present. But to choose this, she would have to leave her upscale lifestyle and go back to school—how could she even begin to consider this?
Carol began with the “What’s the first thing to do?” exercise, then took a couple evening courses and found that she loved them. To the absolute horror of her family and friends, she soon quit her job, sold her penthouse and became a full time graduate student, eventually becoming the special education teacher and counselor she wanted to be.
Soon after this, Carol began to taper off her therapy appointments until finally they stopped altogether. Ten years later, LeShan met her “bounding jauntily down the street.” They greeted each other with a big hug, talked for a minute, and then both hurried off for appointments. After a couple steps, Carol turned around and asked, “Do you know why I’ve stopped staying in touch with you?” He shook his head. She answered, “It’s because I’ve been much too busy living my life to have any time for such nonsense as cancer, psychotherapy, or you!” LeShan’s concluding comment really says it all: “For a psychotherapist, this was a combination of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Nobel Prize. There could not have been a finer reason.”
They encountered each other one more time, seven years later and this time had coffee. Carol was still growing and now felt it was time for a new adventure in her life. She was beginning to use her administrative and managerial skills again as the executive director of a large charitable foundation--and continuing to experience her life as “full, rich and meaningful.”
Regarding Carol’s physical condition, her melanomas had gradually quit growing and after the first six months of therapy, they began to shrink. This continued until they disappeared and they never reappeared. Carol was still cancer-free over twenty years later, when LeShan’s book was written.
29 Exercises for Creating Your Ideal Life: What Actions Can You Take Now to Shape Your Life So It More Closely Resembles Your Dreams?
Can a cancer patient take on this life-altering work alone, without a therapist or counselor guiding the way? Yes, certainly Greg Anderson (see Greg's chapter on this website) was able to do this. In fact, LeShan comments that although patients working alone may not be able to go as deep, nor explore and gain insight to the same degree, yet “great progress can be made, lifestyles can be changed greatly and definite positive effects can be made on the immune system.” A true commitment to make these changes must be present, even if it forces us to walk through every one of our worst doubts and fears. “Sometimes it can be done alone. Sometimes it takes the help of a psychotherapist.”
The final chapter of the book is a Workbook, with 29 exercises designed to help individuals explore who they are and what their ideal life would look like. Most of us don’t have any idea where or how to begin this process. And these exercises are great for anyone who wants a more fulfilling life—not just cancer patients who need to stimulate their immune systems. “The immune system is feeble-minded,” LeShan says. And so it follows that if we feel we are unique and worthwhile enough to take care of ourselves, then our immune system will believe us and go to work to do exactly that. If we create extra years of good health and a fulfilling joyful life living our dreams, then we will have healed not only our bodies, but our hearts and spirits as well.
Cancer as a Turning Point is every bit as relevant and on the cutting edge of our medical knowledge as it was when first published in 1989. We highly recommend it for every cancer patient and for those who work with them in any capacity.
And now, consider with us for just a moment what kind of a world this would be if every one of us had the courage to create these profound changes and embrace a fulfilling joyful life right now—without waiting for a wake-up call like cancer to force us to look at what is so deeply out of balance in our lives. If we all sang our exquisite “songs” together, what kind of perfect harmony would be created around us? What wouldn’t we have any time for anymore? How about illness for starters?
Note: There are two additional sections of the book worth pointing out. LeShan includes an excellent chapter on meditation and a chapter with great advice about how to find the right therapist to work with.
Dr. LeShan and his associates offer five-day residential workshops, intensive “marathon” psychotherapy and individual therapy sessions, as well as trainings in these methods for healthcare professionals. Consult his website or call his office for details about all of this.