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Chris Woolmams / Catherine Woollams
Prayer and cancer healing

The Power of Prayer to heal cancer


"Prayer is not an old woman´s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action" - Gandhi

This article looks at the Power of Prayer and its ability to heal cancer.

However sceptical or nonreligious we may have been in the past, for many people the challenge of cancer is a spur to investigating or re-engaging with the spiritual aspect of our natures. Often the experience of cancer can have a transformational impact - causing us to become more truly ourselves, more connected to our own values and life purpose and more in touch with a sense of the spiritual.

Frequently people who are sick will call upon prayer to help with the challenges they face. But does prayer work, or is it just a panacea for the desperate? Does praying actually have a physiological effect or could it be just the effect of the placebo at work?

Dr William Kelley, an American working in the field of nutritional and metabolic therapy, urged his patients to trust in God, to read the bible and to pray. He believed a positive attitude could play an enormous part in helping to kick out disease. And at Duke University Medical Centre in Carolina, doctors have noticed that patients with a God live longer than those who neither believe nor pray regularly. Doctors are now conducting research into this discovery.

Open quotesA positive attitude could play an enormous part 
                                in helping to kick out diseaseClose quotes

There are two types of prayer - that which the individual does for themselves, and that which is received - either knowingly or not - from others. Numerous studies show that in the former case, those who pray contemplatively or meditate - in both Western and Eastern traditions - can positively influence their health.

There are many possible explanations for this, depending on your beliefs. First, those with strong religious beliefs of various traditions believe that by asking for healing through prayer, a loving and omniscient deity will respond.

For many this is an unquestionable belief - important and hugely valuable to those who hold it, but impenetrable to those who don´t.

Secondly, there are points of view that do not require faith to explain the effectiveness of prayer. The act of prayer requires the supplicant to become quiet, release tension and let go of stress. This in itself has a positive physiological effect. Dr James Le Fanu, medical correspondent in the Daily Telegraph describes an extraordinary piece of research by Professor Luciano Bernardi of the University of Padua. ´There is a marked similarity in the physiological effects of chanted yoga mantras and the repetitive Latin of the Rosary Prayer, Ave Maria... Surprisingly, they have a common thread, with the Rosary´s strong repetitive element having been introduced to Europe by the Crusaders who took it from the Arabs, who had in turn borrowed it from the Tibetan monks and yoga masters of India.

Open quotesThe act of prayer requires the supplicant to become quiet, release tension         and let go of stressClose quotes

Professor Bernardi found that the reciting of the Rosary and yoga mantras slows the respiratory rate to six breaths a minute, which coincides with the rhythmic oscillation of nervous impulses controlling the heart rate. This synchronicity of respiratory and heart rates boosts oxygen in the blood, while improving circulation to the brain."

There have also been developments in the last ten y ears or so that are bringing ogether the findings of science with what the mystical traditions have been teaching for centuries, which is based on sound physiological principles.

These are so compelling that in the US alone there are 80 medical schools which now run courses for exploring the role of religious practice and prayer in health.

The relatively new science of Psychoneuroimmunology looks at the relationship between our thoughts and emotions and our bodies. Scientists have demonstrated that when we have a thought or feeling our brain produces neuropeptides, substances that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. Other cells in the body - most significantly the immune system - have receptors for these neuropeptides, and respond accordingly.

As Deepak Chopra, a medical doctor and international speaker on the mind/body connection, says, "Your immune system is continually eavesdropping on your internal dialogue."

Open quotesTranquillity produces the natural equivalent of valium in our systems; nervousness produces adrenalin; excitement produces interleukinsClose quotes

In his audio programme, Magical Mind, Magical Body, he describes how different emotional states produce different chemical changes in the body. For example, tranquillity produces the natural equivalent of valium in our systems; nervousness produces adrenalin; and excitement produces interleukins, which, when manufactured chemically are hugely expensive anti-cancer drugs. He suggests a ride on Magic Mountain at Disneyland (so long as you like that kind of thing!) as an enjoyable and cheap way of producing these powerful chemicals - naturally!!

Thirdly, prayer activates hope. Research by Greer on coping styles shows that those who react to a cancer diagnosis with hopelessness and helplessness have a much lower chance of survival than similar patients with a fighting spirit.

Being Prayed For

The second aspect is that of receiving prayer. There have now been numerous studies on this subject, perhaps one of the most well known being conducted by cardiologist Randolph Byrd and published in 1988. Byrd´s work took place with coronary care unit patients and was scientifically rigorous using a randomised, double-blind protocol. Over ten months, 393 patients in the unit were - with consent admitted to a prayer group (192 patients) or a control group (201 patients). They were prayed for by Christians outside the hospital.

Open quotesThey were prayed for by Christians outside the hospitalClose quotes

Neither the doctors nor the patients knew who was receiving prayer. Although when the study began the patients were all of a similar state of health, over time the patients receiving prayer showed much better recovery rates than the others. The prayed-for patients were five times less likely than control patients to require antibiotics and three times less likely to develop pulmonary oedema. While twelve of the control patients needed intubation to help with breathing, none of the prayed-for patients did.

Another impressive study was conducted more recently in 1998 by Dr Elisabeth Targ at the California Pacific Medical Centre in San Francisco. Her study (again a double-blind experiment) was conducted with patients with advanced AIDS. Those patients receiving prayer had six times fewer hospitalisations, which were also of a significantly shorter duration than those people who received no prayer. Even Dr Targ herself was surprised, "I was sort of shocked," she said in an interview with ABC News, "In a way it´s like witnessing a miracle. There is no way to understand this from my experience and from my basic understanding of science."

Yet another study is by Dr Mitchell Krucoff at Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina. He studied the effects of prayer on patients undergoing cardiac procedures such as catheterisation and angioplasty. His findings show that patients receiving prayer have up to 100% fewer side effect from these procedures than people not prayed for.

Open quotesWhen bacteria are prayed for they grow faster; when seeds are prayed for, they germinate quickerClose quotes

A leading researcher and writer in this field is Dr Larry Dossey, who has written extensively about the power of prayer. On his website, he cites examples from the plant and animal world. When bacteria are prayed for they grow faster; when seeds are prayed for, they germinate quicker; when wounded mice are prayed for they heal faster. He says "I like these studies because they can be done with great precision, and they eliminate all effects of suggestion and positive thinking, since we can be sure that the effects are not due to the placebo effect.

So if it isn´t the placebo effect, what the heck is going on?

An explanation that is gaining more and more scientific veracity is the idea that rather than being separate individuals, each one of us is connected energetically - as suggested throughout the aeons by mystics of many traditions.

Deepak Chopra is an eloquent speaker on this subject. He describes us individually as waves that are part of an ocean of consciousness, and gives the example of our breath to explain this.

Oxygen is the foundation of all our tissues, and as we breathe in and out we are literally building our bodies. He claims that in our bodies there are around a million atoms that were once in the bodies of Christ, of Gandhi, of Leonardo da Vinci.

We are exchanging our bodies with the body of the universe all the time. In fact, 98% of the atoms in our bodies are exchanged within a year. We are connected. And our thoughts are powerful.

Open quotesIn this way, prayers can energetically influence - for example - a cancer patient in a UK oncology wardClose quotes

In this way, the prayers of a nun in a convent in Ireland, or a monk in a temple in the Himalayas, or a rabbi at the Western Wall in Jerusalem can energetically influence - for example -a cancer patient in a UK oncology ward.

Chopra says "What physicists are saying to us right now is that there is a realm of reality which goes beyond the physical .... when in fact we can influence each other from a distance." It is a view that is also held by Larry Dossey, who proposes on his website that "consciousness is not confined to one´s individual body. An individual´s mind may affect not just his or her body, but that of another person at a distance, even when that distant individual is unaware of the effort."

So if you are a religious believer, all of this simply gives some scientific background to what you already believe to be true. If you are a sceptic, this latest research shows there are undoubtedly healing forces in nature that science is only beginning to understand. Whichever camp you come into, prayer is effective and is an important element in the healing journey.

The World Healing Crusade offers spiritual support through a team of volunteer "prayer partners" based in most towns and cities worldwide. CANCERactive works in parallel with the Crusade to offer this support.

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