Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Disease of Helplessness

Spring has finally graced us with some warmth. So after finishing a light 1/2 day of work, I jumped on my bike to take full advantage. Cycling out east at warp speed provided the illusion of considerably respectable fitness: surprising after a winter of creating a significant indentation on my favourite couch. Heading back west offered me the true reality of my current state: recovering sloth. In Ontario, we may not have mountains like the ones that abused me in France, but we do have wind .. and lots of it! Regardless of the challenge today, the experience left me with a feeling of gratification that I only really get from cycling.

On a kind of related note, I read a study the other day out of the University of Pennsylvania. Rats were grafted with the exact quantity of cancer cells known to induce a fatal tumour in 50 percent of them (it is related .. you'll see). The rats were divided into three groups: the control group were grafted and were left to live their lives as normal in the laboratory cage. The second grafted group received small, random electrical shocks which they had no control over receiving. The third grafted group also received random electrical shocks but were provided with a button that they could press to avoid getting extra shocks. One month after the graft, of the rats in the control group, 54% had rejected their tumour. The second group, the rats which received random shocks and had no control over them, demonstrated despondence: they lost their appetite for food and sex and did not respond to intrusions into their cage. 27% of these rats rejected the tumour. In the third group, the rats that received the shocks but had control over avoiding extra shocks, did not become despondent: they became agitated when their cage was intruded, they ate well, copulated as frequently as rats do in a normal environment and, most interestingly, 63% of these rats successfully rejected their tumours! Recall that this is a higher percentage than the rats who were left alone. The study suggests that the feeling of helplessness associated with receiving shocks and having no control was capable of hastening the tumour's spread.

The theories of a "cancer" personality have changed over the years. Initially, the type "C" personality was popular: the person who has never felt welcome in their childhood, the "really nice" people who avoid conflict and sacrifice themselves for others, the "saints" of our society. This theory has been rejected though, due to lack of scientific evidence supporting it.

Whatever the personality type, what does ring true from a science perspective is that there is an indisputable association between cancer and a feeling of helplessness. David Spiegel MD coupled with Yale psychotherapist Irvin Yalom MD and conducted a study involving women with metastatic breast cancer (this is the kind that has already spread beyond the breast tissue. It is much more serious). The expectant survival rate of the participants was between a few months to a few years. Groups of 8-10 women met weekly to develop relationships that facilitate attaining "powerful authenticity"through openness to others. In comparing the psychological states of the women in the meetings to those that had recieved the same diagnosis and were not participating, Spiegel noticed that the women who had participated in the group meetings experienced less depression, anxiety and physical pain. In addition, ten years after the diagnosis of their disease, when Spiegel evaluated the lifespan of the women participating in the group sessions compared to the ones who had not, three out of the original women from the group sessions were still alive (which is amazing in and of itself) verses none of the women from the group that had not participated. In addition, he discovered that the women who participated in the groups sessions lived an average of twice as long as the ones who had not participated. Spiegel concluded that the authentic relationships, the support, the empowerment that was achieved by those participating in the group sessions contributed to their better prognosis.

In addition, an alternative scientific study has demonstrated that women with breast cancer who were better able to face the disease psychologically had more active NK cells (immune cells that fight cancer) than those who sank into depression and helplessness.

I could go on and on citing studies but I think you all get the point. By bringing this to light I am, in no way, suggesting that cancer happens solely on the basis of psychology alone. Cancer is a complex disease with many contributing factors. I am suggesting however, that our state of mind plays a significant role in immune function and does influence our ability to fight cancer.

When it comes to helplessness, having strategies in place that allow you to access your power allows an avenue for cultivating a more positive mental outlook and, potentially, a healthier immune system. My strategy is cycling - I like to think that Lance Armstrong and I are alike in this (although I don't look quite as good naked and I'm not in the usual habit of comparing myself to Lance Armstrong in any realm of cycling)! In reading his book however, cycling as his coping strategy is clearly illustrated. He writes, "so long as I was on the bike, I knew that I was still alive". Riding gave Lance Armstrong the strength that he needed to persevere through cancer and treatment. In the depths of disease, finding hope, finding power, finding your ability to step out of helplessness can mean the difference between resilience and despondence. So, on days like today, when I'm fighting wind, riding about 2km/hr and wondering how I possibly rode the French Alps a few months ago when I can hardly get across Whitevale road, I take comfort in the fact that I may be weak but at least I'm not helpless.

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