AFTER THE MIRACLE
Several times in my medical career I have been privileged to witness miraculous cures. The most recent began last year when a 32-year-old Indian woman came to see me in my office outside Boston. She sat quietly facing me in a blue silk sari. To keep her composure, she clasped her hands tightly in her lap. Her name was Chitra, she said, and together with her husband, Raman, she ran a neighborhood import store in New York City.
A few months earlier, Chitra had noticed a small lump in her left breast that was sensitive to the touch. She underwent surgery to remove it, but unfortunately the surgeon found that the lump was malignant. When he explored further, he detected that the cancer had spread to her lungs.
After removing the diseased breast and a large portion of tissue around it, Chitra’s doctor gave her initial doses of radiation and then placed her on intensive chemotherapy. This is standard procedure for treating breast cancer and saves many lives. But the lung cancer was going to be much harder to treat; it was obvious to everyone that Chitra was in a very precarious position.
Examining her, I noticed that she was very anxious. When I tried to reassure her, she surprised me with a touching statement: “I don’t mind for myself if I have to die, but my husband will be so lonely without me. Sometimes I pretend to be asleep and then sit up all night, just thinking about him. I know Raman loves me, but after I’m gone, he will start seeing American girls. I can’t bear to lose him to an American girl.” She stopped and looked at me with suffering in her eyes. “I know I shouldn’t say that, but I think you understand.”
You do not get used to the sorrow that cancer creates, but I felt a deeper sorrow from knowing that time was Chitra’s enemy. For the moment, she still looked healthy. She had even managed to hide her disease from her relatives, dreading having to be watched as she wasted away. We both knew it was going to be very bad for her.
No one can say that he knows a cure for advanced breast cancer. Conventional therapy had provided all that it could for Chitra. Given that her cancer had already spread to another organ, the statistics said that her chance of surviving for five years was less than 10 percent, even with the most intensive routine of chemotherapy that could be safely administered.
I asked her to start a new course of treatments, as prescribed by Ayurveda.
Like me, Chitra had grown up in India, but she had little idea of Ayurveda. Her grandparents’ generation was the last to “believe” in it, I would imagine; today, every progressive Indian living in a big city would prefer Western medicine if he could afford it. To explain to Chitra why I wanted her seemingly to turn her back on progress, I told her that her cancer was not just a physical disease but a holistic one. Her whole body knew she had cancer and was suffering from it; a tissue sample taken from her lungs would show that malignant cells had migrated there, while a sample from her liver would be negative. Yet, her liver had the same blood coursing through it, and therefore it picked up the signals of disease that were coming from the lungs. This in turn affected its own functions.
Similarly, when she felt pain in her chest or had to sit down owing to shortness of breath, signals were racing throughout her body, going to and from her brain. Sensing the pain, her brain had to respond to it. The fatigue she was feeling, along with her depression and anxiety, was a brain response that had physical consequences. So it was wrong to think of her cancer as just an isolated tumor that needed to be destroyed. She had a holistic disease and for that she needed holistic medicine.
The word holistic, which tends to offend orthodox doctors, simply means an approach that includes the mind and body together. I believe Ayurveda does this better than any alternative, although it may not be very apparent on the surface. In fact, many well-publicized mind-body techniques such as hypnosis and biofeedback are far more flashy than Ayurveda. If Chitra had gotten sick at home in Bombay, her grandmother might have fixed her some special meals, brought home medicinal herbs in a brown paper sack from the Ayurvedic pharmacy, and insisted that she stay in bed. Various purgatives and oil massages might be prescribed to clean the body of toxins generated by the cancer. If there was a spiritual tradition in the family, she would have begun to meditate. In essence, I was going to have her do these same things, with a few additions. There is as yet no scientific reason why any of this should work, except that it does. Ayurveda has hit on something deep in nature. Its knowledge is rooted not in technology but in wisdom, which I would define as a reliable understanding of the human organism gathered over many centuries.
“I want you to go to a special clinic outside Boston for a week or two,” I told Chitra. “Some things that will happen to you there will seem highly unusual. You are used to the idea of a hospital as a place with respirators, IV tubes, transfusions, and chemotherapy. By that standard, what we will do for you at this clinic will seem like nothing. Basically, I want to get your body into a deep, deep state of rest.”
Chitra was a trusting person; she agreed to go. In part, of course, she had no alternative. Modern medicine had done all it could, using the strategy of physical assault on her cancer. The initial advantage of assaulting a disease is that you hope to wipe it out physically as soon as possible. The tremendous disadvantage is that the whole body is damaged in the assault on one of its parts. In the case of chemotherapy, there is the very real danger that the immune system will become so weakened that the door is opened for other cancers to develop in the future. However, untreated breast cancer is considered deadly, and today’s medicine is good at wiping it out over the short run. In a climate of opinion ruled by fear, people prefer to run the risks of the cure rather than the disease.
I referred Chitra to the clinic where I work, in Lancaster, Massachusetts. She stayed for a week and received treatments; she also learned an outpatient program to use at home that included a change of diet, some Ayurvedic herbs, a specific daily routine including simple yoga exercises, and instruction in meditation. These measures look different on the surface, but underneath they all aimed at bringing her day-to-day existence to a settled, restful state, building a foundation for healing. In Ayurveda, a level of total, deep relaxation is the most important precondition for curing any disorder. The underlying concept is that the body knows how to maintain balance unless thrown off by disease; therefore, if one wants to restore the body’s own healing ability, everything should be done to bring it back into balance. It is a very simple notion that has profound consequences. Chitra was also given two special mental techniques that went directly to the root of her cancer. (I will say more about these later.)
Chitra followed her program faithfully and came back to see me every six weeks. She also continued the course of chemotherapy set up by her doctor at home in New York. When we talked about that I said, “If I could confidently put you on nothing but Ayurveda, I would—the deterioration in your physical state would then be much less. But you came to me a very sick woman, and we know that the chemotherapy works as an outside approach. Let’s combine the outer and the inner and hope that they add up to a real cure.”
For almost a year I followed Chitra’s progress. She always listened with a trusting attitude, yet as she returned for each visit, it was clear that she was not improving. Her lung X rays were still bad, her shortness of breath grew worse, and she began to look weaker and more dejected as the disease advanced. Her voice took on a note of panic. Finally the day came when Chitra did not show up for her appointment. I waited out the week and then called her home.
The news was not good. Chitra’s husband, Raman, told me that she had suddenly developed a high fever and had to be hospitalized over the weekend. For some time her lungs had been seeping fluid into the pleural cavity that surrounds them, and her doctor suspected that an infection had set in. Given her grim prognosis, there was no guarantee that Chitra would ever leave the hospital.
Then a very curious thing happened. After a day or two on antibiotics, Chitra’s fever went from 104 degrees F. back down to normal, which puzzled her attending physician. It is very unusual for a high-grade fever to reverse itself so rapidly if the underlying cause is an infection in a terminally ill patient. Could there be another cause besides infection? He decided to take chest X rays, and the next day Raman called me sounding both exhilarated and confused.
Copyright © 2015 by Deepak Chopra. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.