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Love, Medicine and Miracles by Bernie S. Siegel (Harper & Row: $15.95; 256 pp., illustrated)

May 18, 1986|Joan Borysenko | Borysenko is a cancer cell biologist and medical psychologist at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital. and

"A new philosophy, a way of life, is not given for nothing. It has to be paid dearly for and only acquired with much patience and great effort." Feodor Dostoevsky.

So begins "Love, Medicine and Miracles," the incredibly inspiring and sure to be controversial book about healing in so-called exceptional cancer patients. The author, Bernie S. Siegel, is a no-less exceptional surgeon, a shaven-headed iconoclast and faculty member of Yale Medical School. Bernie, as his patients call him, startles operating room staff by giving positive suggestions to the unconscious minds of his anesthetized patients.

Siegel contends that 15-20% of cancer patients are exceptional. They defy statistics and decide to be survivors whatever their prognosis. Refusing to be victims, they assert themselves and use their illness to acquire Dostoevsky's new philosophy. This, as much as curing the body, is healing.

"Getting well is not the only goal. Even more important is learning to live without fear, to be at peace with life and ultimately death." Taking care of mind, body and spirit are all addressed, the premise being that mind and spirit can often, if not always, benefit the body. Siegel states that, "Acceptance, faith, forgiveness, peace and love are the traits that define spiritually . . . these characteristics always appear in those who achieve unexpected healing."

While the faithful may say amen to this message, scientists are likely to be skeptical. To quote Emily Dickinson, "Faith is fine for gentlemen who see, but microscopes are prudent in an emergency." Two women the same age have the identical disease. One dies in a year. The other is alive and well 10 years later. What makes the difference? The truth is that science doesn't know. Rarely, people with even widespread cancer suddenly recover. No one understands such "spontaneous" remissions.

Siegel reviews considerable research in an engaging, but uncritical manner. Unfortunately, he glosses over flaws in design that make scientists wince. Excellent research is reviewed side-by-side with uncontrolled, highly questionable studies. At times, he makes more out of the findings than the results warrant, stretching to support the contention that hopelessness and lack of assertiveness are potentially lethal attitudes. Generally, though, he remains true to the spirit of the law if not to its letter.

Siegel is an extremist, and it is always open season on extremists in the mind/body and cancer arena. He views cancer and nearly all diseases as psychosomatic. While not completely discounting the influence of genetic and environmental factors, he minimizes them in favor of a primary influence of attitude as the factor that tips the balance toward health or disease. The tireless controversy over whether taking responsibility for one's illness creates a burden of guilt is bound to rage around Siegel's work with redoubled fury because of his strong viewpoint. Yet, every story in the book leaves the reader with the impression that Siegel's EcaP (for exceptional cancer patients) groups would lead to the very antithesis of guilt.

Since 1978, through a combination of attitudinal therapy, meditation and visualization, as detailed in the book's appendix, EcaP patients have taken an active role in healing themselves. The stories of hope, told with consummate humor and love, can be an important source of inspiration to the reader, whether or not physical healing is an issue. Siegel's message distills down to one that the head may question, but in which the heart delights, "The plain truth is: Love heals."

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