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Cancer and the Mind

brain-mindFor the last 2400 years, physicians have known that there is a connection between the mind and health. Although no one has ever come up with any type of evidence-based mind treatment proven to cure disease, it is well known that the connection is very real.

Despite the lack of any controlled trials proving that the mind can cure disease, thousands of years of anecdotal evidence should not be ignored.

Throughout the 1970’s, Ainsley Meares, M.D., an Australian psychiatrist provided documented case studies of 73 of his cancer patients. Five of those patients went into full remission just by practicing a very simple mindfulness meditation, which he taught to them.

None of those patients were expected to survive, and they had all refused any medical interventions. Another five, also not expected to recover, and who had also not received any medical interventions, went into partial remission. One of Meares’ patients, Dr. Ian Gawler was diagnosed with very advanced osteosarcoma with lung and brain metastases; he was given a very dismal prognosis. He began practicing the simple mindfulness meditation taught to him by Dr. Meares five hours a day and achieved complete remission with no medical interventions. He now runs a large mind-body medicine cancer center in Australia.

Obviously, there is no way to prove that Gawler or any of Dr. Meares’ other patients would not have gotten well without the meditation practice. However, statistically, it is unlikely that more than a couple of those patients would have survived with no medical interventions. Dr. Gawler believes that his ability to develop inner peace and tranquility through his five-hour-a-day meditation cured him, cured other Meares patients, and continues to cure many of his own patients.

meditationIt should be noted that not all of Dr. Meares’ meditation patients beat their cancer by adopting a mindfulness practice. Here is his explanation: The results of treatment of 73 patients with advanced cancer who have been able to attend at least 20 sessions of intensive meditation indicate that nearly all such patients should expect significant reduction of anxiety and depression, together with much less discomfort and pain. There is reason to expect a ten percent chance of quite remarkable slowing of the rate of growth of tumors, and a ten percent chance of less marked but still significant slowing. The results indicate that patients with advanced cancer have a ten percent chance of regression of the growth. There is a fifty percent chance of greatly improved quality of life and for those who die, a ninety percent chance of death with dignity.

Without controlled trials, there is no way to know if Ian Gawler and many other people with advanced metastatic disease got well as a direct result of mindfulness meditation. However, there is evidence from Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin and from other researchers that mindfulness, when practiced throughout the day, does contribute to improve physiological functioning. That an improved state of mind can improve physiological functioning is well accepted. However, the improved physiological functioning, which results from committed mindfulness practice, does not normally cure cancer. In fact, some well known senior meditation teachers have died of various forms of cancer. Yet, any improvement in physiological functioning does improve the odds, which may mean that a smaller percentage of serious mindfulness practitioners die of cancer. Unfortunately, this has not been studied.

ainslie-mearesFrom my reading of Ainsley Meares’ case studies it is clear that some of his meditation patients devoted more time to home practice than others. More significantly, only a few select patients reported that they had succeeded in finding a way for the meditation to influence every aspect of their lives, resulting in a higher state of consciousness.

Unfortunately, the attitude of many people who have been given a very dire prognosis is: If I only have a short time left, I certainly do not want to spend my time meditating. Possibly, if we had evidence that there is an actual correlation between time spent practicing mindfulness and cancer recovery, many more people would be willing to put in the practice time.

Very few people have been willing to devote five hours a day, like Ian Gawler, to a formal mindfulness practice. However, some of those who have devoted five hours a day to meditation have gone into complete remission from very advanced metastatic cancers.

Lawrence LeShan, PhD, the author of the best-seller—Cancer As A Turning Point—has commented that when you think of how many political elections have been won by less than 5%, even if what we do with the mind has less than a 5% chance of improving the odds of beating cancer, wouldn’t it be worth including working with the mind as part of the treatment plan?

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Cancer and the Mind

Dr. Larry Berkelhammer

Dr. Berkelhammer is a retired mind-body medicine psychologist. He writes about mindfulness-based practices with a unique emphasis on optimization of wellbeing and health. Dr. Berkelhammer also lectures at San Francisco State University and UC San Francisco, and is currently teaching a class in Marin County through College of Marin. He is the author of the book "In Your Own Hands; New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions".

See his extensive website:

In Your Own Hands: Mindfulness-Based Practices to Optimize Wellbeing - College of Marin Community Education

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APA Reference
Berkelhammer, D. (2015). Cancer and the Mind. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Jan 2015
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