People often do a lot to heal their immune system. A real problem is chronic inflammation. I’ve not had a single patient tell me that their doctor has looked into the amount of chronic inflammation they have in their bodies. It’s just not the way we think.
And people learned how to deal with stress: how to get out of chronic fight-or-flight and into a more parasympathetic healing state where you activate the vagus nerve, not only through knowing how to relax your body but also through making genuine connections with others.
Claire is a good example of somebody who made a lot of changes in her relationships. She wasn’t doing it as a way to live, but she wanted to finish well. She wanted to laugh a lot. She wanted to forgive a person who had been critical of her in her life but was also very important to her. The research supports this: When a person does these kinds of things and tries to create more-authentic relationships, it’s good for their physiology and it activates their parasympathetic superhighway, which is the vagus nerve. Genuine eye contact, the sparkle that is in our eyes when we make real contact with people, a smile—that all activates the vagus nerve.
It’s really good for the body. You can’t be in chronic fight-or-flight and in the parasympathetic. When you make genuine contact with people and share something positive with them—whether it’s someone you know well or don’t know well—it will activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The brilliant cells of your immune system wake up and are active and happy when they are getting the parasympathetic biochemistry. They function a lot better. When they’re under chronic secretion of the stress hormones in fight-or-flight, your immune system—all those brilliant cell subtypes—becomes sluggish.
Another big factor is about healing your identity. One of the most common things that people have said to me over the years is that it took an illness for them to wake up and realize they needed to stop taking care of everyone else. They needed to stop responding to the perceived expectations of others and begin doing the kinds of things that created real life and authenticity for them.
It’s shocking to me as a physician how often a person’s response to an end-stage cancer diagnosis will be: If I’ve got only twelve months to live, then I guess I don’t have to go to law school because Dad wants me to. Or if I’ve got only six months to live, I’m going to do whatever the hell I please. I don’t have to do what that person expects me to do all the time.
That’s a very different way of living. One of the women I talked to was sweet, demure, kind, and very gentle. In the process of healing her breast cancer, she became more assertive. She had a husband who was kind of rough and probably pretty difficult to live with. She began to be not so concerned about taking care of others emotionally and to simply say what she believed—to be more assertive. I think that was probably great for her physiologically. Coming to believe in herself enough that she was willing to take up space in the world and not just keep taking care of others and suppressing her own needs. I suspect it was probably important in her healing. I’ve seen that kind of thing a lot.
We need a lot more research on this, but my perception of what happens sometimes is that the death of the old self can be the opportunity for a more authentic self to be born. Expected death can end up being a doorway into a new life that’s unexpected and paradoxical in some ways.