Researcher Profile: Warren Berland; Unexpected Cancer Recovery; Why Patients Believe They Survive

RESEARCHER PROFILE: WARREN BERLAND; Unexpected Cancer Recovery; Why Patients Believe They Survive
Psychotherapist Warren Berland began his doctoral research (at Saybrook Institute) with extended survivors of cancer because "no one is listening to what survivors have to tell us about recovery." Berland recalls how thrilled and inspired he felt as a Boston University graduate student in 1976 when he learned of the writings of Lawrence LeShan, O. Carl Simonton, and Stephanie Simonton, which revealed the possibility of healing cancer through psychological intervention. He reflects now that times have changed since the early days of his practice when he used to conceal the Simontons' book Getting Well Again as he walked through the halls of Sidney Farber Cancer Institute in Boston to see patients. His current work as a psychotherapist in New York City focuses less on what is wrong with people and more on their strengths and what is right with them. This approach is based on his background in Solution-oriented psychotherapy which emphasizes strengths and solutions rather than prob lems and pathology.

His study, published in Advances,5 describes results of his qualitative research with 33 cancer patients who were given a less than 20 percent chance of survival by their doctors, who nevertheless survived. Berland went directly to the patients themselves in an attempt to tap their ideas: What did they think had contributed to their remarkable recovery from cancer? Subjects were asked to assign proportionate "slices" on a pie chart reflecting factors they believed were important contributions to their recovery. They also answered questions on the Health Attribution Test, which probes where patients place healing potential-within self, significant other, or the transpersonal domain.

His preliminary study sheds promising light on the strategies these survivors used to "beat the odds" of their illness. One of the most interesting findings is that congruence between the method(s) chosen and the basic personality style of the individual was important to this group's members' survival. Those whose instincts were to "fight the cancer" chose different tools than those who believed that changing themselves through their approach to life had helped them survive. A second group believed that by undergoing an attitudinal shift toward life-affirming patterns they could affect the course of their recovery. A third group felt that a process of transcendence -- a radical shift in the way they viewed their meaning, purpose, and relationship to life -- had played a major role. Most used many resources to get well. No single factor emerged as a healing explanation, but rather multiple patterns based on where the patient assigned control -- to self, to powerful other, or to c hance. Patients attributed a much more significant role to the social support of their family and friends than they did to their professional medical care, whether allopathic or alternative.

"A different human being often emerges from the crisis of a life-threatening illness," writes Berland. This can be viewed as an event with biological consequences-especially as reflected in the body's self-recognition function, the immune system. He hopes that his findings, which indicate "that people who have done particularly well have found their own unique approach to healing," will encourage patients, therapists and doctors to pursue new pathways to recovery.

Article copyright Institute of Noetic Sciences.

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