BOOK REVIEW

“Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing” by Jeffrey Rediger. Flatiron. 386 pp. $28.99. Review provided by The Washington Post.

Sometimes things happen in medicine that astonish doctors.

A young man in Colorado is diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer. After surgery, he begins chemotherapy and radiation but decides he does not want to spend his last few months in misery, so he stops. At a friend’s suggestion, he moves to a “healing center” in Brazil and begins a regimen of spiritual exploration and meditation. Two years later, an MRI shows the tumor is gone.

A physician in Ohio has a biopsy that reveals idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an irreversible disease that always ends in death. Weak and exhausted, she goes on disability. She has to carry a CPAP machine everywhere to force oxygen into her lungs. She starts seeing a faith healer, who is also a physician. He gives her acupuncture and prays over her. She begins to feel stronger, gives up the oxygen and goes back to work. A couple of years later, a chest X-ray shows no evidence she ever had the disease.

A woman in Oregon learns she has pancreatic cancer. She refuses the risky surgery her doctors offer and decides to live her remaining months as well as she can, among friends and family, doing what she loves. Five years later, a CT scan shows her pancreas is clean.

Sounds impossible, right? No wonder doctors dismiss these outcomes – the original diagnosis must have been wrong. The very subject is taboo in mainstream medicine, Jeffrey Rediger writes in the introduction to his new book, “Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing.” Faced with recoveries they can neither explain nor replicate, doctors tend to dismiss such cases as flukes, one-offs.

“It’s as if we’re embarrassed,” Rediger writes.

But Rediger, a psychiatrist on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, had long been intrigued by these outliers. What, if anything, did they have in common? How had these people changed their lives after their diagnoses? What caused their immune systems to kick back into action?

This compelling book is the result of 17 years spent tracking these people down and verifying their stories. “These were irrefutable, documented diagnoses, which were then followed up – weeks, months, or sometimes years later – by documented evidence of complete remission,” he writes. Listening to their stories, he came to believe that something had changed in these patients that allowed them to heal. And that there were lessons to be learned.

To anyone familiar with health trends, these lessons will not be surprising. They include diet, exercise, stress reduction, social interaction, love, faith and finding your “true self.” But beyond this, the book is a sharp critique of Western medicine: its blind spots, its resistance to change and its very structure.

Rediger proposes a sweeping overhaul of the practice of medicine, and he makes a darned good case for it. The history he recounts, the clinical trials he cites, the personal stories of people with real names lend his argument the force of a hurricane. When I finished the book, I ordered copies for friends and changed my grocery list.

As a messenger, Rediger has the right credentials. Besides teaching at Harvard, he is the medical director of McLean SouthEast adult psychiatry programs and of community affairs at McLean Hospital, a renowned psychiatric institute in Massachusetts. He also holds a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his compassion permeates the pages of this book.

He knew ridicule might follow any serious study of “miracle” cures, but he was ready for that, too. Raised in an Amish family (but not in an Amish community) in Indiana, he endured the pain of being different. (He says he also endured childhood abuse at home.) Perhaps those experiences gave him the courage to take on a subject so fraught.

He began his research skeptically but eventually became convinced, he writes, that Western medicine has missed something essential: It focuses on the disease and not the person. It waits for people to get sick rather than strengthening their immune systems so they won’t become sick.

The mind-body connection is only beginning to gain a foothold in Western medicine, he says. Yet every doctor knows the placebo effect is real; the mind can change what’s happening in the body. Before their recoveries, some of the patients had dreams and visions. You don’t have to buy into a mystical explanation to understand that their brains were telling them something.

Another overlooked area is chronic inflammation, known to be “a superhighway that runs straight to the most deadly diseases out there,” Rediger writes. “Yet how often has your doctor helped you reduce inflammation in your body or even brought it up?” The Western diet is cited as a key culprit, continually unleashing inflammation throughout the body, but so is stress. While there’s no one-size-fits-all way to reduce stress, there are lifestyle changes the people in this book made that point the way.

The patients he studied had many kinds of cancer – testicular, brain, metatastic melanoma – but also end-stage lupus, debilitating Type 2 diabetes and a crippling form of arthritis that normally leaves its victims in wheelchairs. Rediger’s search took him to the most respected medical institutions, to healing centers in Brazil and to the faith healer in Cleveland. After he gave a TEDx talk on what he had learned so far, hundreds more cases poured in.

Early on, he noticed that most of the subjects, facing death, had radically altered their diets – but not all in the same way. Some became vegetarians, yes, but others ate meat with abandon. One British man, having read about another cancer patient who had recovered, went on a strict ketogenic diet – high fat, low carbs – and his Stage 4 brain tumor shrank.

These diets were designed by the patients. They ate foods that made them feel good or foods they had read would help them heal. Deep into his research, Rediger confides, he eliminated sugar and processed food from his own diet and lost 40 pounds. “I have a completely different body,” he writes. “It’s nearly impossible for me to get ill any longer.”

The people in this book also adopted an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. They learned, through exercise, yoga or meditation, to turn off their fight-or-flight response and shift into the parasympathetic, the mode that allows the body to heal. Some of them changed jobs or abandoned relationships that caused them constant stress. They gave themselves over to friends and family and opened themselves to love. They discovered their true selves. And they had faith – sometimes religious faith, but sometimes simply faith that they would get better. They had hope.

Of course, most people diagnosed with serious, incurable illnesses do succumb to them, and Rediger is aware that his ideas may be perceived as victim-blaming. But his goal is empowerment: Don’t be discouraged by the statistics. Live a meaningful life in the time you have. Face the prospect that you may die, but don’t give in to despair. Be aware that “we have more power than we know when it comes to healing.”

When Rediger looks to the future, he envisions a vastly different medical world – one that sounds both optimistic and unsettling. In his imagined doctor’s office of 2049, artificial intelligence identifies patients through facial recognition (no Social Security number necessary!), pulls up their medical histories, extracts data from their smartphones and pinpoints health vulnerabilities. It makes recommendations based on the newest research. (The AI is “completely nonjudgmental,” thank heavens.) It frees doctors to focus on the patient. Privacy, however, goes unmentioned, as well as the possibility that all this information could be hacked.

At the end of his book, Rediger issues a call to join him in his crusade. Demand a medical system that emphasizes health, not sickness. “Help us sound the revolution,” he writes.

It’s an utterly persuasive message.

– Reviewed by Mary Hadar, who is a longtime Washington Post editor.

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