And so, at the age of 61, I find myself in the weird and liminal state of having a terminal illness but feeling fine and having no immediate threat to my health...Since my diagnosis, I have received a lot of unsolicited medical advice. Much of this fell into the category of “mind/body medicine.”... meditate, breathe, pray or exercise in a certain way...when the explanations offered for the efficacy of mind/body medicine employ vague terms like “energy flow” and “resonance,” my baloney detector rings out strong and clear.
...part of my motivation to study neuroscience has been to understand the biological underpinnings of behavioral interventions in medicine. Some of the claims of mind/body medicine are almost certainly true, even if the pseudoscientific explanations offered for them are not...What about a potentially fatal illness that often manifests outside of the brain? Could the course of cancer progression be affected by behavioral practices like meditation or breath work?
...In recent years we have learned that certain types of cancer in the body receive nerve fibers, which originate in the brain and are passed to the body via electrochemical signals that travel in a chain from neuron to neuron. These include tumors of the lung, prostate, skin, breast and pancreas and the gastrointestinal system. This innervation of tumors often contributes to the growth and spread of cancer. In most cases, if you are a cancer patient and your tumor is innervated, then your prognosis is worse.
...the innervation of tumors and its role in cancer progression suggest an interesting hypothesis in mind/body medicine. If behavioral practices like meditation, exercise, breath work or even prayer can attenuate or reverse the progression of certain cancers (and, granted, that’s a huge if), then perhaps they do so, ultimately, by changing the electrical activity of the nerve cells that innervate tumors. It is a provocative idea and one that is testable in both humans and laboratory mice...if there is such a connection, it opens up the possibility that my own cognitive approach to terminal illness — in my case, hopefulness coupled with curiosity — could contribute to keeping my cancer at bay and do so, not through supernatural means, but by altering the electrical activity of tumor-innervating nerve fibers. I hope so, as however they are granted, these extra innings are a pure delight.