In Touch with My Dream

Alan J. Cooper, MD

After the initial shock of learning that I had cancer -- malignant melanoma -- and worrying through two recurrences, I concluded that the only quest in life that made any sense for me or gave me any sense of purpose was to get cured.

I asked several oncologists to advise me of ways to conduct my life that might enhance the chances of cure, but I received no worthwhile advice other than, Stay out of the sun. The medical profession doesn't even know if that advice makes any difference once the cancer had occurred.

I also asked what it meant to fight, since we have all heard that those who fight survive longer. There were no concrete suggestions in this area either, although most oncologists do believe that a fighting attitude helps somewhat. I was left feeling suddenly alone as a patient and increasingly distant from the assurances and help of my colleagues.

I decided to explore every aspect of life that might hold promise for effecting a cure. I continued to receive the best available conventional therapy for my illness, but I also took part in experimental therapy.

It seems entirely possible that there are mechanisms within the total neurophysiological structure of a person which bring about a restoration of health by entirely natural means. The triggering factor could be mental, physical, or spiritual. The process might take seconds or years. I didn't see any value in excluding such possibilities.

I realized early on that I would be adopting measures in part based on intuitive or inner validation rather than on any external structure of proof. I have not regretted this approach. Indeed. it has immensely enriched my life.

The first step for me was to take stock of my life in the broadest sense. I was helped very much by the exercises described in Alan Lakein's book, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, (New American Library, 1996).

To my surprise, I found that the most important thing on my list of what I meant to accomplish in life was attaining inner peace. Dr. Jerry Jampolsky at the Center for Attitudinal Healing in Marin County, California, defines healing as precisely that: the attainment of peace.

Many other aspects of my life-plan emerged from reading Lakein's book as well, and I highly recommend it to anyone drifting along in life who hasn't discovered their particular purpose or meaning. Through this process I have accomplished a number of things I would never have done if I had not had cancer, including, running in the San Francisco Bay to Breakers race.

I want to make it clear that the value of listing life goals and then doing them is not just to enjoy life while you still can. That kind of attitude is self-defeating. Rather, the value is that by becoming active in doing things that are truly and deeply meaningful, I began to restore some physical and emotional balance to my life and actually realized the possibility of a physical cure.

There is a Native American belief that when a man loses his dream, he begins to die. I realized that I had indeed lost touch with my personal dream. I have tried a smorgasbord of things to help me get back in touch with my dream and to reestablish my positive feelings and energies.

I have practiced both receiving and giving love; I've gotten psychological counseling from a man trained in the thought process and theology of Lawrence LeShan; and I have used sleep time to listen to a wide variety, of tapes on health and life. I have overcome inertia and discovered that all kinds of things I hadn't thought I could do are possible.

I've strengthened my ability to have faith. It is hard to believe in the efficacy of external factors (immunotherapy, exercise, etc.) if we don't nurture the impulse of faith itself, especially if our body seems to have failed us. Increasingly, I turn the whole process over to God whenever I can. The feeling of peace and power that comes from the act of letting go and, occasionally, from prayer, seems to ratify that the universe is on my side.

I must have tried all the many varieties of prayer. Some have been quite moving. I have also experimented with the use of affirmations -- uplifting positive statements -- repeated many, many times, such as: I am healthy, or, God loves me.

Visualization has also been very helpful. I have used several forms of visualization, including seeing and feeling myself healthy, successful, and happy in the far distant future in which I love myself. I've used a visualization in which I see myself healed by significant other people, and another very important visualization in which I address all the organs of my body with gratitude and respect for a prolonged, healthy life. Along with visualization, I have used self-hypnosis to more deeply reconstruct my attitudes and self-image.

Bodily, I have found regular vigorous exercise to be important. I run three times a week and wrestle with rocks in my living creek. I also follow a strict vegetarian diet and take vitamins, including high doses of vitamins C and A.

Since embarking on this program to reestablish my positive feelings and energies over a year ago, I have scarcely had a single moment of depression or hopelessness. Such feelings occasionally start, but I seem to be able to stop them cold. To me this is a minor miracle following three operations and a lung metastasis.

My doctors have always projected a healthy optimism. I can't tell you how uplifting and energizing this is once you have had a life- threatening illness. There is such a large body of negative programming out there that any positive statements, actions, and feelings seem not only justified, on the basis of equal time, but necessary in order to positively influence our immunity.

There seems to be a kind of subliminal, self-fulfilling prophecy in many of the communications received from people about cancer. Conventional opinion assumes cancer to be a kind of slow death. Even the kindest of friends look morose as they ask how you are. The powers of the community are such that people can enhance the likelihood of death from cancer simply by projecting such a negative attitude subliminally.

Another important area of negativity appears in statistics about melanomas or any other illness. Such statistics may have no bearing on me. Someone who survives a particular illness for five or ten years may be a one-in-a-hundred or one-in-a-thousand statistic, but, for themselves, they are a hundred-percent survivor. I chose to be such a person, since I enjoy not being a victim. Why not be a victor?

The process of separating myself from the conventional wisdom that all cancer ends in death is just beginning, and I have only partially rid myself of self-defeating attitudes. I have learned not to call myself a cancer patient because I have not stopped being myself just because a melanoma happened to me. I don't intend to change my identity at this time because of a disease.

Although it might appear that I'm only concerned with positive things, I am increasingly aware of the destructive forces within me. Especially Fear. With a capital F. Part of my program involves facing fears one by one, getting to know them, and then doing something about them.

Action is one of the best antidotes for fear. A lifelong fear of mine has been of standing in front of a group of people and leading them or lecturing them. I therefore started giving classes during the past few years about deep relaxation and imagery techniques that lead to changes of attitude as well as to some physiological changes. Doing this has given me a great deal of confidence, and I plan more classes, possibly for cancer patients.

More than once I have caught myself imagining how I would have to die in order to be memorable. But there is no profit conforming to others' expectations that cancer patients must die bravely, heroically, philosophically, spiritually, or any other way. People with cancer need not be scapegoats for other people's fear of death.

I'll never forget the words my oncologist recently spoke to me. They have been ringing in my ears, mind, and heart ever since. He reviewed my records, looked up with surprise on his face, and said, Why, Alan, your body seems to have done an amazing job of controlling your cancer. I think you may well be cured. He has made similar remarks on all subsequent normal examinations.

In closing, I must say that illness for me has been a gift and a springboard into new life. I've been able to resurrect hope and fun and to rediscover the value of leisure and laughter. I suspect all those legendary, 120-year-old men sitting around in the Urals sipping their vodka are also telling and retelling 100-year-old jokes that we ought to go listen to.