The Power of the Mind to heal cancer by Carl Stonier

Stress Management aids cancer survival

Can your mind heal you of cancer? Carl Stonier is an expert counsellor and he is adamant your mental state can be ’lifted’ to help you beat cancer.

The power of the mind to heal cancer

mindCarl Stonier, 55, recently completed his doctorate exploring the relationship between physical and psychological health. The results of his study on patients with heart disease resoundingly reinforce the value of stress reduction and mind power in the healing journey. Carl is a counsellor and psychosexual therapist in private practice as well as a supervisor and trainer for Relate and a trustee of the National Conference of Cancer Self Help Groups. In the l980s he worked on the ground-breaking heart transplant unit led by Sir Terence English at Papworth Hospital.  Through many years with the NHS, as a nurse, Nurse Manager and specialist consultant in counselling, Carl pursued a special interest in the wellbeing of cancer patients. He lives in Yorkshire but runs nationwide workshops on shamanic journey, healing, tai chi and meditation. Here icon learns how Carl came to recognise that there is more to healing than general medicine addresses. We report how he developed his unique treatment modality ’an active process combining counselling and guided imagery’ and how those with cancer could benefit. 

The might of metaphor and well being Carl Stonier’s guide to a good place.

The first question, which was to lead Carl on a path beyond white-coated authority, came to him during his nurse training in mental handicap. ’I’ve always been a bit of an anarchist. I like to challenge’ he says. ’So what I observed in this work was that an awful lot of people who had spent a lifetime in mental hospitals and I mean the bad, old-style Victorian bins retained really robust physical health.

is there a connection between a lifestyle where everything is found for an individual and where that person is very protected

 Despite being totally shut off from the world and despite profound learning problems, many people in their seventies and eighties were still as slim as a lath, walking everywhere, even gardening. I asked myself why this should be is there a connection between a lifestyle where everything is found for an individual and where that person is very protected. These people don’t have the intellectual ability to recognise that the outside world has something they lack, so there is no stress, no pressure there.’

 And the second

Once qualified, Carl moved into general nursing "where the questioning continued. I still remember a chap in his thirties who had never smoked in his life a very talented artist, who was dying of lung cancer.

  ’It always seems to happen to the nice guys’

 A fellow patient wondered aloud how such a thing could happen to this person ’It always seems to happen to the nice guys’ he said. So I began to think about what is it about being a nice guy that might cause illness. That question just hung around.

Medicine and the mental paradigm

By l984 Carl was a nursing officer in Castleford, Yorks where he set up a working party to explore the provision for cancer care across the district. Out of this came a Macmillan-funded nursing post for someone to support newly-diagnosed patients in the oncology clinic and also the Castleford and District Cancer Self-Help Group one of the first of its kind in the country.  In his quest for whole patient support outside the general medicine box, Carl read wide and travelled far. He visited the Bristol Cancer Help Centre. He talked to Jean Sayre-Adams and Professor Steve Wright who went on to found The Sacred Space Foundation (in the Lake District) for people many from health care backgrounds) who are suffering stress and joylessness and, therefore, seek the right environment for renewal and healing.

emotional and mental states play a significant role, both in susceptibility to, and recovery from, cancer

Then he had ’a light bulb moment’ turning the pages of Getting Well Again by Carl and Stephanie Simonton. This US couple were committed to the concept of mental processes bringing about a physical effect. The Simontons believed that emotional and mental states play a significant role, both in susceptibility to, and recovery from, cancer. Their book made meaning of the links that Carl himself had observed over the past decade, between reaction to stress, suppression of the immune system and subsequent tendency to illness. It suggested, (not instead of, but as well as orthodox treatment) a programme of mental imagery, focusing on the desired outcome the restoration of health, physical, emotional and intellectual. Says Carl ’The questioner in me saw that this approach doesn’t fit into orthodox medicine but many things don’t and they too seem to work.’

He successfully applied for a travel fellowship to study with Stephanie Simonton at Little Rock, Arkansas, where she had set up a health, training and research centre. ’It was really strange that during my own meditation I was by now using the concept of an imaginary safe place.  I would always go, in my mind, to a little log cabin, all on its own, surrounded by a lake, up in the mountains. Apart from the fact that it was brick, not wood, the centre in Little Rock was exactly the place of my imagination.’

An ideal place

The guided imagery that Carl now uses grew from his intensive week in Little Rock. ’When someone comes to me, I begin with the journey to a special place for them. I get them to imagine a place where they have been, or could be safe and happy, at peace. We usually work on this for a couple of sessions, then move on to an imaginary Control Room where you take charge of everything that happens within your body. You can, for instance, find a control marked ’cancer’ and turn it off.’

 The guided imagery finds a place where they can be safe, happy and at peace with an imaginary Control Room where you take charge of everything that happens within your body

You can find a switch marked ’pain’ and turn that off.’  The next stage is to imagine a monitor or TV screen on the control room wall, where you can track the effect of the changes you have made to the controls. You then move on to deal directly with the cancer, as seems most effective for you as an imaginative individual. ’The Simontons’ says Carl ’concluded that the more aggressive you are in ’zapping’ the cancer, the more effective you will be. They suggest that cancer sufferers deploy a shark and prey imagery to gobble up all the affected cells. But I don’t find this useful for all those nice guys who get cancer: they are not naturally aggressive, so if you ask them to be so, you are setting up an internal conflict that does them no good. I suggest a gentler way of delivering healing rays, or perhaps seeing the cancer cells as sick members of society and white cells as the healers, doctors, or stretcher bearers carrying off the sick cells so that they can healed and made whole again.’

Who Benefits?

Surely only those with visual minds can deploy this technique? Carl concedes that guided imagery is not for everyone, but says that if you can work not just with the inner eye, but with all the senses - hearing, smelling, almost believing you can touch the cancer-busting scenario you create, and then the technique becomes so much more powerful.  The Simontons found that a very significant few some six per cent managed to make themselves cancer-free using visualisation. At the other extreme, six per cent reported no difference. ’The 88 per cent in between felt some degree of benefit’ says Carl ’in terms of pain relief or regaining control of their lives.’

Among his own clients, a certain bus driver with stomach cancer stands out.  ’He had a horrendous lifestyle: he smoked horrible little roll-ups all the time, ate convenience foods and took no exercise because of his job. I told him straight, that these were the choices of a complete prat. But it turned out that this chap in his thirties - was absolutely awesome at guided imagery his saving grace.’ This particular man also convinced Carl of one reason why it is so important it is to use visualisation in tandem with counselling: ’sometimes people will produce unhelpful images, so you need the counselling to help them reframe. This man, for instance, initially saw the cancer as red ants and the defender cells as a kind of ant powder. But you know what it’s like if there are ants in the house. no matter how much powder you use, they keep on coming. Basically he was telling himself that the ants were going to take over... he might be able to slow their advance down for a bit, but not eradicate them. after working with visualisation for three weeks before surgery, the stomach tumour had shrunk to half its size

After counselling, this guy went off and changed the imagery so that the cancer became a lame animal and the white cells became hungry lions. He was quite an aggressive character and he managed a total shift in the balance of power that was critical.’  Barium studies had measured this man’s stomach tumour, and after working with visualisation for three weeks before surgery, it had shrunk to half the size. He was out of hospital following much reduced surgery within a week. He managed to clean up his act for a bit, but soon reverted to the roll-up lifestyle and then contracted bowel cancer. Again he used visualisation and again he recovered. His next brush was with pancreatic cancer from which few recover but he did.’ Carl has no idea what made this particular man operate his anti-cancer imagination so powerfully: ’I wish we did know how wonderful if we could bottle his particular talent! But why this works and for whom is part of ongoing research.’

Another of Carl’s clients met a fellow patient at Cookridge Hospital, Leeds, where she was having radiotherapy for breast cancer. He told her that he too was working with Carl but remotely, using Carl’s tapes, which he’d acquired through his self-help group. This man had actually declined orthodox treatment for his facial skin cancer, but was coming into Cookridge to have his progress monitored. Week by week, the woman reported, you could see the lesion getting smaller until eventually it disappeared.

A third patient, with liver secondaries from breast cancer was less fortunate though guided imagery seemed set to save her. ’She was wonderfully elegant, but you could see from her shape how swollen her abdomen was. When she came to me she had been on chemo for a couple of months, with no response at all. She’d then had to give it up because her blood count was so low, but within a month of us working together, it was normal again. She was recovering well, but sadly, her oncologist decided that the chemo was finally working so it had better be stepped up. The woman died of chemo-induced liver failure. I thought it really tragic.’

Proving the Case for Guided Imagery

If the NHS was a tad broader-minded, then Carl Stonier might never have embarked on his remarkable visualisation Ph.D study. The visualisation clinic he set up was censured and closed down after being reported in the local paper ’with journalistic excess and zeal’.   So Carl cast around for a less emotive field of medicine than cancer in which to carry out a proper controlled study for his Masters in counselling. Turned down flat by the closed-minded dermatology department of his hospital, he found a new consultant cardiologist much more ready to embrace the complementary. The study evaluated well, and on the basis of his MA Carl was asked to set up a pioneering counselling department at Pontefract General Infirmary. It was accessible to anyone in the hospital; area GPs could refer directly to it; hospital staff could self refer. By l999 Carl (who was also teaching four basic counselling skills and a  certificate in counselling course within the hospital as well as assuming responsibility for health and safety) had a personal caseload of 108 clients for the service deemed by a national government audit to be a fantastic model the only one of its kind in the country. ’At which point’ sighs Carl ’the NHS pulled the plug on the service and I parted from it quite acrimoniously.’

The Heart of the Matter

After three months of treatment the control group had improved 103 per cent over baseline. The experimental group had improved over 900 per cent

Now, however, he had time to pursue his Ph.D and a further study evaluating the effects of visualisation with counselling on 40 cardiac patients in his experimental programme. This group received the same standard medical care as Carl’s control group, also of 40 cardiac patients. Both groups filled in detailed questionnaires designed to measure their wellbeing in terms of mental and emotional states, physical ability, level of chest pain and exercise tolerance.  This was followed up at three, six and 12 month intervals. At this point the control members were invited to switch, if they wished to the experimental programme so that they were not deprived. Those in the experimental group had, on average, 10 counselling sessions and a taped programme of guided imagery which they used at home. ’The results were astonishing even to me’ says Carl. After three months of treatment the control group had improved a very encouraging 103 per cent over baseline. The experimental group, however, had improved over 900 per cent,’ demonstrating an 800 per cent intervention-related benefit.’

Further down the line, at six months, the control group had dropped 30 per cent below baseline, but the experimental group were still measuring more than 700 per cent. After a year, the control group stood at minus 50 while the experimental group were still up at 600 per cent improvement over baseline. ’This shows’ says Carl ’that guided imagery and counselling produce a huge improvement when dealing with physical issues and it’s maintained. With standard medical care, however, you get a good improvement at first, but then people get worse.’ Though not part of the formal evaluation, other statistics intrigue: during the year studied, six people in Carl’s control group died due to cardiac-related events. Nobody in the experimental group who had completed his course died at all, though one man on his way into hospital for the second counselling session suffered a heart attack in the hospital car park, and subsequently died in A and E. Another man dropped out of the study, concluding that it was a ’load of rubbish and not for me.’ Six months later he succumbed to another heart attack and died.

Of those heart patients in the experimental group, six actually came off the waiting list for bypass surgery because, clinically, they no longer needed it. Clients reduced or came off, all medication. They regained their exercise tolerance and even their lives. The NHS didn’t do so badly either, for as Carl observes, his work constitutes relatively cheap medicine. A course with him costs about 350, whereas bypass surgery is about 15,000. ’So, if six people came off the bypass waiting list during his study year, that’s some 90,000 saved.’ In human terms, however, it is beyond price.
Carl’s shining example is the woman deemed by her specialist to be a "cardiac cripple." She’d had two lots of bypass surgery, one elective and one emergency, and couldn’t have anymore. She was on maximum medication.  But she was another of those people who, once engaged with the technique, prove fantastic at imagery. After three months of working this woman, who would get an angina attack just getting out to the car, was swimming three quarters of a mile every day. She stayed in touch with me for eight or nine years, so I know that for this period at least she continued in good health. So much so that when her husband, who had been her carer, developed Alzheimers, she became his carer and was well able to do so.’  

Crux of the Counselling

Looking at illness and who succumbs, Carl was intrigued to discover that every single person he saw during his doctoral research had experienced either some form of poor parenting, or was on the wrong life path for them. ’The poor parenting could be quite accidental my star heart patient, for instance, was a three-year-old wartime evacuee from London. At that age you don’t know about bombs. You reasonably conclude that Mummy and Daddy sent you away, so you must be a bad girl. My client had spent the rest of her life to date, trying to make up for that perceived badness.’ As for the wrong life path, one of Carl’s clients had only ever wanted to work the land, but needing a better-paid job when his family came long, moved into industrial work. He was very conscientious and so made foreman - not to mention decent money before the heart attach which caused him to take early retirement on a nice package - In a way he was able to get back what he’d wanted. Not everyone, of course is able to make major life shifts, but perhaps through counselling they can talk through alternative ways in which they can build into the life they are stuck with, some form of the dream they always wanted. The would-be actor, for instance, can take up amateur dramatics; the potential Edmund Hillary could always train for the Three Peaks.

Not to live the dream at all, and to regret and resent that shortfall, could be to risk your health. ’Studies still need to be done’ says Carl ’exploring why one person gets heart disease and another gets cancer. We don’t know that as yet, but metaphors are really quite powerful. So one might wonder about the relationship between the kind of illness someone gets and the problem they have. With bowel cancer, one might ask what is it that the individual can’t let go of? Or what can’t he stomach? What makes the blood run dry?’

Does everyone good at the guided imagery game get well?

’It’s not necessarily so’ says Carl. ’Some people may get better, but basically, people tend to take control of their lives more. So the people I’ve worked with who had died eventually (and we all do) have died in a way that they were ready to go. They died with dignity, they died free of a lot of medication consciously rather than doped up to the eyeballs with morphine. The difference lies in the quality of the life and death, as much as the quantity.’

Thinking yourself well how can this work?

Carl says that we know from neuroscience research that whatever the brain perceives it acts upon. ’Whether I see you sitting in this room, or in my mind, I respond in much the same way, So if you picture cancer healed, your brain will create the right conditions. After I’d finished my thesis I came across a wonderful book called The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton. Lipton started out as a Professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School. He realised that the strict medical approach had got it wrong. Specialising in the cell membrane, he discovered that the brain of the cell isn’t the nucleus, but the membrane. It responds to thoughts; it responds to different hormones and indeed it responds to the beliefs that you hold.’
Readers might like to know that  Carl Stonier’s website is: Carl has also contributed two chapters to the book Cancer: a Personal Challenge Ed Bob Rich.(Anina’s Book Company)

Stress Management aids cancer survival
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