The Most Powerful Healing God & Women Can Come Up With
Finding healing tools for surviving breast cancer.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of Spirituality & Health.
At the California Pacific Medical Center and UCSF, the Army is funding a four-year project to find out if breast-cancer patients who use an integrated smorgasbord of spiritual tools fare better than women in conventional group therapy. But the researchers have larger goals. Says one ebullient staffer, "We're modeling a new way of being a woman." Grandiose? Not at all. Keeping this Integrated Group together is a young psychiatrist, Elisabeth Targ, M.D. (8/4/1961-7/18/2002), whose career, like Galileo's, may rock both the scientific establishment and the institutional church.
Imagine for a moment (and we hope this is pure imagining) that you have just lost a breast, or part of one, to a surgeon’s knife. Your hair has fallen out — and that’s just the most visible sign of a massive chemical assault on your insides. Your sense of self is altered if not shattered. You’re angry. More than that you’re terrified — yet the anger and fear are tinged with elation, an urgency that sometimes comes when the ultimate illusion has been ripped away and you’re catapulted face-to-face with you own mortality. You can now look at yourself in a mirror — bald and scarred and scared — and you can ask yourself: Who am I? What am I? Really?
Now imagine coming out of an elevator on fifth floor of a typically sterile, steel-and-glass medical building at the University of California, San Francisco. You’re looking for the California Pacific Medical Center’s Breast Cancer Personal Support/Lifestyle Intervention Trial — a group experiment for which you have been chosen by lot. As you exit from the elevator, it’s not obvious where you’re supposed to go, but if you have a sense of recent medical history you’ll find comfort in the more visible project sharing the space, Dean Ornish’s Heart Disease Reversal Program. Before Dr. Ornish’s work, nobody believed that hearts could be unclogged with low-fat diets, exercise, and meditation. Today that miracle seems almost commonplace.
The miracle you need, however, is a whole lot bigger. Unlike heart disease, nobody knows what causes breast cancer, let alone how to cure it. The best you can hope for is NED which among doctors means No Evidence of Disease and among patients translates into No Expiration Date. That uncertainty at your very core has opened your mind to try something new.
You round a corner into a lobby with a bowl overflowing with fresh fruit on the coffee table, and then you gaze above the couch at a photograph by Hella Hammid of a woman — ecstatic, naked, arms outstretched, a serpentine tree tattooed over her mastectomy scar. You read her words: “I am no longer afraid of the mirror where I see the sign of the Amazon, the one who shoots arrows… Love is a battle I can win.”
You poke your head into the art room and see oddly lovely plaster busts (not heads, busts). Behind them, a makeshift altar is littered with other art and offerings left by previous patients. You open a book on the altar. It’s of handmade paper, hand-stitched, filled with poems and drawings and photos: An elaborately beautiful thank-you note created by the second cohort for the research staff. Perhaps it strikes you, too, that a healer could hold this book on her deathbed and know for sure that all her years of training and effort had been for the good.
You ask yourself what made these cancer patients so grateful.
Late now, you hurry down another hallway, pausing one last time at a framed collage with kind, smiling photos and first names of fifteen women, the research staff. They could be teachers in progressive preschool. Now you enter the gathering room. It’s basically institutional — though perhaps you notice along the walls the brass Tibetan bell for calling people to meditate, the “talking stone” for sharing stories, the yoga mats, and the diaphanous scarves for dancing.
Mostly, however, what you see are women: Eight other patients who may come to know you in more ways than your closest friends. And the staff: The psychiatrist, minister, nurses, social worker, psychologists, dance therapist, art therapist, yoga teacher, nutritionist. Each will prove to be a walking catalogue of healing tools.
Perhaps more important, each of these women is devoted to a meditative practice of her own and to the transcendent idea that breast cancer exists as part of all of our lives. In other words, these researchers gathered in this prestigious medical center are here to explore rigorously the spiritual assertion that we are all profoundly connected — perhaps to some life force — and that connection has the power to heal.
They will not tell you what to believe. Nor will they tell you that your cancer is some great opportunity for growth. What they will do is provide the chance to experience yourself in an enormous variety of ways — yoga, meditation, art, prayer, movement, hands-on healing, dialogue, etc. Their goal is to help you to expand and deepen the ways you experience yourself — inside and out — in the hope that such experiences will connect you at a heart level to your authentic, intrinsic self. That’s the level of belonging and purpose. And perhaps the level where, at least subjectively, you feel connected to something beyond. What they hope is that stronger connections will, in turn, make you more able to beat the cells that have turned against you.
You’ll likely face your darkness here. They tell you that up front. But they also make it clear that they won’t leave you hanging like many weekend workshops. You pinch yourself as it dawns on you that for the next twelve weeks — at no charge at all — these fifteen superbly talented women will be there to hold your hands.
Now it’s time to meet the program director, Elisabeth Targ, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF and Director of the Complementary Medicine Research Institute at CPMC. Thirty-seven, with gentle eyes, soft features, and flowing black hair just going gray, Elisabeth describes herself as “an open-minded skeptic.” The more time you spend with Elisabeth, the more you begin to appreciate how open her mind — and her heart — actually are.
An Expansive Universe Called Home
Elisabeth’s uncle is Bobby Fischer, perhaps the best chess player the world has ever known. Her father, Russell, is a physicist, one of the inventors of the laser. He is also legally blind, and perhaps as a result he became fascinated by other means of seeing, namely ESP or psi. So it’s not surprising that Elisabeth is brilliant. Nor is it surprising that for her entire life she’s been fascinated by the working of the brain and mind.
By age 13 Elisabeth was helping sort left from right brain hemispheres at Karl Pribram’s renowned brain lab at Stanford. Meanwhile, she also helped her dad, who was becoming known for his work with the controversial spoon-bending showman and psychic Uri Geller. Russell’s experiments at the Stanford Research Institute with “Remote Viewing” were more successful. Psychics were able to draw locations that they could not see — including a drawing of a Soviet missile installation that contained a more current detail (a large crane) than the Department of Defense’s spy satellite photos. The Department of Defense then wanted to know what makes psychics different from the rest of us, so randomly selected engineers at SRI attempted to be Remote Viewers. Surprisingly, virtually every one proved capable of remote viewing, so long as they were told that there was a possibility that they might succeed.
Elisabeth went to Stanford and then to Stanford Medical School because, she says, “to ask really good questions about the brain and mind, you need to know how the body works.” There she published papers on nerve conductivity in prestigious journals. She also traveled repeatedly to the former Soviet Union with the father, where psi research was respected part of the Soviet National Academy of Sciences. According to Elisabeth, the Soviet Union was far more open to research in parapsychology because it was an officially atheistic country. Their only concern was whether parapsychology was: 1) true or 2) not true. However, in the United States, she says, “there are three categories: 1) true; 2) not true; and 3) having to do with religion and, therefore, not part of science.”
Whether or not you believe such parapsychological capabilities exist (and we’ll not debate that here) the point is that Elisabeth grew up learning how to do scientifically controlled experiments in this third category, which many, if not most, people have some experience with and yet most scientists refuse to study. As a physician, she says she feels an “ethical imperative” to do research and hopefully to provide straight answers to consumers about all facets of medical care. Eventually, Elisabeth’s curiosity and sense of ethics would lead her research into the most difficult and profoundly important area of many people’s lives: prayer and spirituality.
Following the Data toward Spirit
In the late ’80s, Elisabeth was working with AIDS patients at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, doing a study that showed that group therapy was at least as good as Prozac for treating depression. At about the same time, David Spiegel at Stanford Medical School published his revolutionary work showing that group therapy could dramatically increase life expectancy for women with breast cancer. So Elisabeth began to wonder what really happens in group therapy that made AIDS patients less depressed and breast-cancer patients live longer. Is it simply emotional release and social support that allows the mind to heal the body? Or are there deeper connections between people that make the difference? Then the photographer Hella Hammid, an exceptionally good Remote Viewer and close friend of Elisabeth, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hella asked Elisabeth if there was any evidence that spiritual development might help cure her cancer.
Elisabeth didn’t know but wanted to find out.
Such questions were in her mind when she met Helene Smith, Ph.D., director of the CPMC cancer research center. Helene was also fighting breast cancer and asked if Elisabeth would join the center to study spirituality in healing. Next, with a grant from the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Elisabeth spent four months visiting spiritual practice groups and listening to personal accounts of healing journeys. As it turned out, CPMC was very open to the idea of using the techniques of Western medicine and science to try and evaluate the experiences of these patients.
Prayer vs. AIDS
One of the first projects Elisabeth introduced at CPMC was to study the effect of distant healing or prayer for patients with advanced AIDS. For this work, published last fall in The Western Journal of Medicine, she and psychologist Fred Sicher worked with experienced religious and spiritual healers from a wide variety of backgrounds and located from Puget Sound to Puerto Rico. The healers were supplied with a photograph of the patient, a first name, a CD4 count, and basic medical information. Their job was to “hold an intention for the health and well-being of the patient” for an hour a day, at least six days a week, for ten weeks. Healers were assigned to patients on a rotating schedule that changed every week, thus distributing the healers across the population. They kept a log of how long they tried to heal each patient and what they did. They were not told more explicitly than that what to do.
The preliminary study began with 20 AIDS patients: ten who received the healing and ten controls. The patients did not know which group they were in, nor did the physicians. And the experimenters did not know who was in which group until the end of the six-month experiment. At that time, four (40%) of the ten controls had died, but all ten of the prayer group were still alive. Not only that, the prayer group had become healthier as measured by self-reports and interviews. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the data: the patients in the control group were older.
For the next round, the researcher’s first pair-matched 40 subjects for age, degree of illness, and other characteristics like degree of depression and personal habits. Then they repeated the experiment. By this time 90% of the whole sample were on protease inhibitors, which became available during the study. Nevertheless, the healing prayers still proved to be significantly helpful. The most striking result: After six months, only two of the prayer group had developed AIDS defining diseases, compared to twelve of the control group. Somehow, these different healers with their widely differing ideas of the divine were dramatically contributing to the good of the patients. In their next study, the researchers plan to evaluate whether “ordinary people,” rather than self-identified healers, can achieve the same effects.
Elisabeth cautions that “one or two studies can never prove or disprove a phenomenon. The important thing is that these claims are formally looked at with laboratory tools.” But she also says that “If healing can really work at a distance, that suggests that the connections between us can be quite tangible, and it reminds us to be extremely conscious about creating a healing environment wherever we go.” In this way, Elisabeth’s prayer studies dovetail with her attempt to create a spiritually healing environment for the breast-cancer patients in the group.
All Possible Tools for Opening the Mind
Why meditate to heal your cancer? Why share with strangers your deepest stories and dreams? Why dance with a billowing scarf or contort yourself in yoga positions? Why radically change what you eat? Why lie on the floor and pretend a wave is moving through you? Why smear yourself with Vaseline and make a plaster cast of your breasts? Why pick up crayons and draw your mood? Why do any of these things?
Roberta, a fundamentalist Baptist who now feels the power of God in the Chi o f her Chi Gong exercises, has one answer. “We have preconceptions of what we are and what we can do. What I learned from Elisabeth’s group is that we all have choices about what we do and what we allow to impact us. People see in my eyes that I am happier. When I come into a room, something about my smile or the tone of my voice tells them that something is different in me. The past year — the surgery, the radiation, the chemo — was worth it to get to this point in my relationship with God.”
Or as Louise echoes, “I’m not glad I had cancer, but I’m glad I had this experience. Maybe the cancer is the sine qua non of the experience.”
Or as Carita says, “This has changed my life more than I could put into words.”
Which is Best — Innies or Outies?
Given the evangelical enthusiasm of at least some of the patients who have taken part in the Integrated Groups (nicknamed the Innies), it’s easy to forget that it’s only half of the project. The other half of the project is the traditional support groups (the Outies), which meet for a relatively modest 90 minutes each week. Elisabeth’s colleague, Ellen Levine, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a medical psychologist in charge of both projects. A critical part of her job is to keep a wet blanket wrapped firmly around the Integrated Group. “Everyone says the Integrated Group is wonderful,” says Ellen, “but we simply don’t know that all this extra work will give better results than the traditional group.” Not enough data has been crunched yet. More than that, she says, people are very different.
The thrust of the Integrated Group, she says, is turning inward with meditative practices. The traditional support group is more outwardly social. When asked about Innies vs. Outies, Ellen smiles and nods. “I have never thought that one group would do better than the other, but some women would do better in one group than another. For me, the goal of this project is to be able to interview a woman and know which group would be best for her.” When asked which group she would choose, Ellen shrugs. “I’m not a group person,” she says. “I think I would rather go one-on-one with a therapist.” Ellen also points out this study may not be able to say which therapy will help a patient live longer. “All these women, in both groups, found their cancer early and were treated with the best tools modern medicine has available. In all likelihood, they will live many more years than our study can follow them. What we’re measuring are psychological changes. We get women who are often scared, angry, and defensive; if we find that we send them back into the world with at least the same psychological profile as healthy undergraduates, then we will have an enormous success.”
Louise, 52, professor of forestry
It never would have occurred to me that drawing little stick figures would be so revealing and so healing. I'm starting to believe that Jung was right. There are images that we all come up with. I had started keeping a journal, but after the art therapy I stopped writing and kept an art journal. I have six notebooks of drawings.
I was in Germany, lecturing, and got laryngitis. I knew that I was incredibly sick and got down on my knees and prayed — not something I would normally do. From there I went to a conference in South Africa and my nipple retracted. I thought I had a blocked milk duct, so I went to the doctor to get antibiotics. Six hours later I had a mammogram, a sonogram, and a diagnosis. I didn't go through the "why me?" phase. I know about distributions and sometimes it's you.
I wanted the whole world on my team. I wandered through the conference telling people. Even then I said, "I’m going to beat it, and you're invited to my no-cancer dance." I wasn't going to leave my thirteen-year-old son without a mother.
I didn’t think about losing my breast. I would have cut it off with a jackknife in Cape Town. Later, I talked to some people about doing ceremony to say good-bye. That little ceremony mattered more than I ever would have thought.
The post-cancer Louise is very different from the pre-cancer Louise. Pre-cancer, I would look at street signs and play anagrams with the letters, but I don’t need to do that anymore. The other day I was forty minutes late for a meeting I’d called. Before, I would have been absolutely hysterical. But it was fine. The world did not end. It used to be that I would tell people that a party would have to end at nine; then at nine, I would give them permission to stay. Now, at nine o’clock, I say, “I gotta go to bed.” Being able to do that really is a miracle.
Carita, 54, a ticket-taker for the railroad
I remember saying I was unhappy with my weight and I judged myself by my size, and many of the women said I was beautiful and reminded them of a teddy bear. A teddy bear may not be attractive, but there are people who collect them, cherish them, find them soft and warm. A couple of months ago I told my doctor that I had released the battle with my weight. I was not going to focus on it because I am who I am and I need to love the person that I am.
When the phone rang and it was my doctor saying that I needed to come back for another mammogram, I wasn’t surprised. I’d dreamed the night before that he would call, so I picked up the phone and said, “What’s the matter?” When the program started I had just completed the radiation. We sat in a quiet room on pillows in a circle with Elisabeth and some of the other staff. Mostly, we introduced ourselves. At the second meeting we were offered the opportunity to tell our stories and each of us did. Some of us cried; I know I did. I told of the dream and of the phone call and of the anger I felt and also a weird kind of elation, like being free. One or two of the other women said the same thing.
I remember someone saying, “Now I can live my life,” as though before we had just been bouncing along. It was very surprising to me. I had never thought about living fully or reaching my goals. Now I’m taking steps toward making those steps become a reality. This has changed my life more than I could put in words.
I am no longer in the class because I feel that I had the cancer. It is something that I will remember, but I want to move on. I bought a piano and I’m taking a photography class. I’m hoping to learn to sign because there are people who occasionally come to my job who sign and it would fill my heart to be able to communicate with them.
Walking to Music
Roberta, 50, administrative analyst
As the pace of the music picked up we walked more quickly while trying to remain calm. The rhythm of the music got very fast but we had to keep our minds in a calm state. I'm a hyper person. The physical experience helped me make the connection to my mental state.
When I got the diagnosis I stood up in church on Sunday and shared. I didn’t mention the cancer, not at first. I said “I know God love me.” That was the first step of a profound journey in my love of God. I was prayed for by individuals as well as groups. I was on prayer lists and prayer trees. We asked God to randomly assign me to Elisabeth’s group, so I was.
The group was my first exposure to spirituality vs. religion. The choice of diet, how to move, meditation, the dance especially, it was all new to me. The first thing I said was, “I’m a Christian. I won’t do anything against my faith.”
I was in my car listening to Christian music. I was saying to myself, “I will not give up my faith to be healed. I will not lose my salvation.” Then I started thinking about other women being so depressed: What if I got depressed and lost my faith? I said aloud, “God don’t lose me!” and just then I made a wrong turn and there was one of the most magnificent rainbows I had seen in my life. I felt safe to take part. I went fully into imagery and yoga and dance. I started opening up and reading non-Christian books. I know that if it’s not right for me, God will protect me and let me know.
Elisabeth’s group prepared me to make the leap into Chi Gong. If I wasn’t comfortable in my body and open to meditation I wouldn’t know how to move or feel the Chi. I walk more closely now with God.