Uncovering the Cancer-Trauma Connection
Greetings, noble readers. This is excerpt from the introduction of “Cancer, Trauma and Emotions,” slated for publication later this year. Enjoy this preview.
Consider how Western culture, and by extension the conventional medical system, establishes norms of treatment. If an individual is injured in a motor vehicle accident, an X-ray can diagnose a fracture in the sternum or surrounding ribs. If the injury is severe, the emergency room physician may rush the patient into surgery. Justifiably, the situation necessitates an immediate response. Hospitals are designed to efficiently triage such trauma.
Now consider a patient with shortness of breath and chest pain. It wouldn’t take long for a workup by a cardiologist to diagnose angina pectoris and prescribe the appropriate treatment. Here, too, conventional medicine is equipped with blood tests, electrocardiograms, and catheterization procedures to identify and ameliorate the disease process. Although not an acute physical trauma, the mechanism underlying the physiological imbalance is well recognized.
Finally, consider an individual who is despondent following emotional heartbreak. Bloodwork may be normal, and diagnostic tests would not reveal a physiological imbalance that correlates with the deep grief of loss. Yet the person’s experience of emotional pain could be as debilitating as any physical pain. Unless an individual is threatening harm to oneself or others, treatment may not be prioritized. A psychiatrist may prescribe an antidepressant after a brief consultation, and the patient may have to wait a few weeks for an appointment with a therapist. Acknowledgement of the severity of emotional trauma is not met with the same immediacy as physical trauma.
This is not a criticism of modern psychotherapy. I’m sure many psychologists are frustrated with not being more integrated into mainstream healthcare and lacking adequate reimbursement from health insurance. This frustration is shared with many providers of integrative medicine.
What underlies this imbalance in treatment priorities? I’ve pondered this question over the years and have precious few insights. One possibility is the historical conditioning to view the human frame as a machine, prioritizing physical medicine. This notion rose to prominence in the modern world and has only become more ingrained in the information age. We are a citizenry specialized in tasks due to the division of labor; most members of the working class are no longer peasant farmers tied to the rhythms of nature.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a high degree of advancement in physical medicine, as anyone who has experienced a physical trauma will attest when lifesaving medicine is applied. The problem lies in having the buck stop there—literally and metaphorically. Funding for biomedical research is heavily skewed toward pharmaceutical development and new procedures.
This suggests a philosophical divide. Conventional medicine prefers to study that which can be neatly categorized. Emotional trauma is messy, nuanced, and requires a holistic approach to wellness. It entails a philosophical shift from the disease affecting the person to a focus on the person experiencing the disease.
This divide has long accompanied the practice of medicine and shows up in our understanding of the origins and treatment of cancer and trauma. When a cancer patient consults with me, I make clear at the onset that the patient’s oncologist is the disease expert, while my role is to be the health expert. Conventional oncology is a highly refined science of tissue biopsies and genetic testing. By contrast, traditional, holistic medicine is unparalleled in restoring wellness and reinforcing resilience. Together, these paradigms frame an integrative model that can address the disease while strengthening the body, mind, and spirit to optimize outcomes.
Drawing from my education in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and clinical practice as a licensed acupuncturist, the dominant paradigm of this book’s portrayal of holistic medicine stems from Eastern thinking. Yet Western philosophy also has roots in a model of medicine that is equally focused on generating health as on eliminating disease.
The Greek god of medicine is Asclepius, whose staff pictographically composes the image seen in the logo of many modern clinics and hospitals. Asclepius mythologically represents the healing arts. The counterpoint to this mode of medicine is Asclepius’s daughter Hygieia, from whose name we derive the word hygiene. While Asclepius represents the masculine archetype of repairing the body, the goddess Hygieia personifies the feminine archetype of innate healing and prevention of disease.
Holistic forms of Western medicine such as naturopathy retain both masculine and feminine aspects of healing, but conventional procedures and prescribing of drugs are tilted toward Asclepian medicine. Of course, one paradigm of medicine without the other does not allow us to thrive any more than a bird can fly with one wing. Integrative medicine requires that brain, body, and heart awareness work together to best heal the patient, the planet, and the relationship between the two.