Radical Remission, Ayurveda and Personalized Medicine

Cancer is a complex group of illnesses with costly and difficult treatments. Increasingly, research supports the use of integrative and complementary care for people diagnosed with cancer.  Yoga, and its sister science, Ayurveda, are both ancient systems developed in India at least 5,000 years ago, but are increasing in popularity and use as complementary or integrative care modalities throughout the world today. Understanding their benefits and uses can add to the potential pool of healing modalities that can be of use for people diagnosed with cancer.

Cancer is a complex group of illnesses. For those of you who follow the field of oncology, you are probably familiar with the term “personalized medicine.” This practice of researching the very specific type of cancer, even within a broader category such as breast or lung cancer, and then treating it with targeted therapies that address that particular type, is growing rapidly.

Yet, this is not a new concept in medicine. For thousands of years, Ayurvedic practitioners have been prescribing life style, dietary and yogic practices for individuals based on their very specific profiles. Ayurveda promotes individualized health guidance which begins with an Ayurvedic assessment, based in part on an analysis of a person’s doshas, which mean “defects.”

Each individual is born with a set of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual predispositions that form his or her doshas. These tendencies, which are associated with the elements, are called Kapha (earth and water), Pitta (fire and water) and Vata (air and ether), and combinations of these doshas make up our constitutions.

For an expanded explanation of doshas, including a link to an online dosha self-assessment, see http://integrativecancer.org/yoga-meditation/ayurveda-and-cancer/.

In the summer of 2017, I was honored to have a conversation with Kelly Turner, PhD, author of the New York Times bestselling book, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds. Dr. Turner is a researcher and psychotherapist who specializes in integrative oncology. During her PhD work, she studied spontaneous healing, which she calls “radical remission”—when cancer goes away despite medical expectations.

Dr Kelly Turner PhDDr. Kelly A. Turner, Ph.D. is a researcher, lecturer, and counselor in the field of Integrative Oncology whose specialized research focus is the radical remission of cancer. Dr. Turner holds a B.A. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in New York City. 

More at www.kelly-turner.com and www.RadicalRemission.com.

Dr. Turner’s New York Times bestselling book, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, summarizes the results of her research: interviews with one hundred cancer survivors and analysis of over one thousand cases of people who experienced a radical remission. Dr. Turner found that 75 healing factors appeared in these cases, but nine were common among all of the cases she studied. She calls them, “The Nine Key Factors That Can Make a Real Difference.”

These nine key factors, which she states are not in any particular order, are:

  1. Radically changing your diet
  2. Taking control of your health
  3. Following your intuition
  4. Using herbs and supplements
  5. Releasing suppressed emotions
  6. Increasing positive emotions
  7. Embracing social support
  8. Deepening your spiritual connection
  9. Having strong reasons for living

Seven of these factors are psychosocial (mental/emotional) factors. This research provides not only critical information for people dealing with serious illnesses, but for anyone interested in optimizing their own health.

An Interview by Marianne Woods Cirone, MS, MFA, CYT-500 with Dr. Kelly Turner, Ph.D. author of Radical Remission.

Dr. Turner’s research took her around the globe, including to India where she interviewed Ayurvedic practitioners and observed the practices in person. We had the opportunity to talk in depth about the ancient system of Ayurveda and the trend toward personalized medicine in the West, especially in cancer care, and I’m pleased to share this interview below:

Marianne Cirone: I am wondering, in your travels and studies, how much of a role did you find Ayurveda was playing, and what do you think is the readiness of the world for that particular message?

Kelly Turner: Well, obviously, it came up tons in India when I was traveling and researching there. I didn’t see Ayurveda in other parts of the world as much as it was in India. It was present a little bit in London.

In fact, what’s interesting is that in the U.S., it seems like Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture have come to the forefront much more so than Ayurveda in London, probably because of the British-India connection from imperial times. Ayurveda seems much more popular in London and in the UK than traditional Chinese medicine, so that was interesting for me, but yes, Ayurveda took up a big part of my research.

The research in India was very much predominated by Ayurveda medicine, and we had the honor of going to visit an Ayurvedic hospital, north of New Delhi, and it was just amazing to see an entire hospital dedicated towards Ayurveda treatments. There was this one part of the hospital where the rest of the hospital was integrated–it had Western medicine, but then Ayurveda was integrated into it. Then, there was a purely Ayurvedic part of the hospital where you would get the oil on the head, and the herbs would be ground up right there in this mortar and pestle. It was really beautiful to see that happening on the campus of a very established hospital.

Marianne Cirone: That’s very cool.

Kelly Turner: You know, the Ayurveda system, as you know, is where Western medicine is going – which is personalized medicine. It’s not that, “Oh, you’re a female or you’re an adult, so you’re going to go see the gastroenterologist.” Ayurvedic medicine and personalized medicine in the Western world, which is where it’s going, doesn’t do that anymore. It doesn’t say, “Okay. You’re an adult female with gastro problems, so we’re going to give you a prescription drug for your acid reflux and there you go. We’ll cover the symptom. You know?”

Ayurveda takes things to a much more specific, personalized level, and as it should because we’re all different. One of my best friends is 5’1” and curvy, and I have another friend who is six foot tall and skinny as a bean pole. They have different bodies, not just on the outside, but on the inside. Their intestines are working differently. Their metabolism is working differently. Their hormone levels are different.

Just because they both might be having symptoms that look like acid reflux, the way you treat one isn’t necessarily going to be the way you treat the other. So you will be looking at the doshas and seeing each individual’s personal tendencies.

Marianne Cirone: Right.

Kelly Turner: Of course, I think what we’ll eventually find is that the doshas relate to your genetic inheritance. You know? We’ll ask, what kind of body did your parents give you? Is it round and curvy and close to the earth? Are you earth (the ‘kapha’ dosha), or are you taller, an air type (the ‘vata’ dosha)? That’s genetics speaking, but it’s also what I love about Ayurveda. It doesn’t just say, “Okay. You’re this dosha and there is nothing you can do about it.” It says, “Okay. You’re this dosha. You’ll probably be drawn to these kinds of foods, but we don’t want you to just eat those kinds of foods. We want you to balance it with this.” That’s the kind of idea about, “Yes. You have this nature that you’re born with, the genetics, or the dosha that you’re born with, but let’s nurture it. Let’s nurture it properly. Let’s balance it.”

That’s the kind of thing we don’t see in Western medicine at the moment. We’re just masking a symptom. “Oh, you have high blood pressure? Take this medicine to bring it down,” as opposed to, “Oh, you have high blood pressure? Well, you know what? Your body type is probably prone to that because of your dosha, and so let’s nurture that a bit. Let’s change your diet. Let’s nourish you with these oils. Let’s give you these herbs to dampen down that effect that’s particular in your body.” What blew me away with Ayurvedic medicine is that it just was so darn personalized, in such a beautiful way.

Marianne Cirone: It’s difficult to translate that into clinical trials, as we understand them, when everyone is receiving something different.

Kelly Turner: That’s where we need to have a clinical trial that’s doing things differently– where part of the clinical trial is, “Okay. We’re going to have an Ayurveda practitioner come in and we’re going to recruit only breast cancer patients who have this dosha, because the herb that we’re testing really only applies to people with that dosha. You know? Then, we can randomize within that dosha, because everybody [in Western medicine] loves randomized trials.”

You see this personalization in traditional medicine forms, and not just Ayurveda. It’s in traditional Chinese medicine, it is there with the Polynesian medicine that I studied when I was in New Zealand with the Māoris. Almost every longstanding culture has their own form of medicine, and guess what? It’s all highly personalized.

This idea that, “Oh, we’re all humans. We have the exact, same machinery,” this view of Western medicine, this idea that we’re all the same machine and we just need to tinker it the same way, that’s a relatively new idea. If you look at the ancient medicine traditions, Ayurveda being one of them, they never said that we’re all the same. If you look in Chinese medicine, they’ll talk about, “Oh, you’ve got liver chi stagnation or you’ve got heart fire. You’ve got kidney stagnation.”

They’re using the pulse and the tongue and the fingernails to look at how you particularly operate in this world. What are your tendencies? What are things that are strong in you or weak in you? In Ayurveda, they’re looking at prana and they’re looking at doshas to decide that.

Western medicine has gone away from that, right? It’s that, “Oh, you’re just an adult.” Maybe the most we ever differentiate is male or female, but I think we need to get back to the roots of these traditional medicines that have been around for thousands of years. What we need to appreciate from them is their level of personalization.

Marianne Cirone: Right. Our views in Western medicine probably correlated with Henry Ford and the assembly line.

Kelly Turner:  Well, exactly. “Oh, we’re just these machines. Here. You’ve got a broken part. Let me give you the replacement part we give to all humans.” But in actuality, that doesn’t work.

That’s what we’re finding out with cancer, too. Cancer isn’t just one disease. It’s a hundred different diseases. There isn’t just one breast cancer. It turns out there’s 150 subtypes of breast cancer. It’s all so much more personalized and individualized than we thought.

Which is why my research didn’t find that everyone did this exact, same diet or everyone changed this one, precise emotion. There’s room for individualization within the nine factors I found because of that, because we are all so different. Some of the people, if you read my book, really focused on diet. Maybe they didn’t have many people to forgive, or they didn’t have trauma to release, so they just sort of worked on diet and joy, and they did the other seven factors to some extent, but their big focuses were maybe diet and joy. Then, turn to the next chapter, and the next person in my book said they did diet and joy work a little bit, but what they really worked on was releasing a past trauma and forgiving, and healing an emotional wound. There is room for personalization even in what has emerged from my findings.

I think Ayurveda is just like any other longstanding traditional medicine system in that the main takeaway for me is personalization.

Marianne Cirone: Right. I like the word “svastha,” the Sanskrit word for “health.” It means established in the self.

Kelly Turner: I love that. It really is defined by being exactly what you need. You know?

Marianne Cirone: Yes, being exactly who you are, right?

Kelly Turner: Exactly. Another finding of mine that some people are surprised by is “Finding Strong Reasons for Living.”

Marianne Cirone: Interesting.

Kelly Turner:  Why you want to keep living on this earth is different than why I want to keep living on this earth. It’s different from why my neighbor wants to keep living on this earth. It gets individualized even down to that level. What the Ayurveda doctor that I interviewed in India said is, “Having that strong will to live – it’s not just the will to live, but it’s an actual reason, like a specific goal that you have in mind. Like, I want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro before I die, or I want to see my kids grow up, or I want to write that novel.”

Marianne Cirone: Yes, that’s so true.  

Kelly Turner: What this Ayurveda doctor told me during our interview was that having that connection to your dharma – dharma being the Ayurveda word for “life purpose,” your particular life purpose, not all humans, but yours in particular – is what draws prana into the body. If you are not connected to yourself, to your dharma, to your personal reason for being on this planet, if you’re not really deeply connected to that, then you’re not bringing life force [prana] into your system.

Marianne Cirone: Right.

Kelly Turner: For people who aren’t familiar with these terms, it may sound kind of woo-woo, but if we actually hook people up who are dying to these electromagnetic frequency machines, what we see is that — not just the moment their heart stops beating, but well before that, meaning weeks before that — their electromagnetic frequency starts to go down and down and down. Their hearts haven’t stopped beating, but literally the energy in their body is going out like a battery dying. I think that Western medicine will soon be able to measure prana, or what other systems call “chi”, in the mind-body-spirit thing that we’re all walking around in. I think Western medicine will catch up to that. I mean, we developed the microscope that was able to finally see germs and viruses, right?

Marianne Cirone: Definitely.  

Kelly Turner: We take it for granted now that viruses exist, but I’ve read some fascinating newspaper articles of people saying, “This crazy guy! This doctor thinks there are these invisible things in the air that we’re breathing in that are making us sick! He’s hallucinating. Don’t believe a word he says. How can something invisible make you sick?”

Marianne Cirone: Right.

Kelly Turner: Then, of course, we discovered the microscope and, lo and behold, look at what’s in the air. It’s an airborne virus. You know?

What I would say to people is, let’s be open to the idea that Western medicine might be behind on this one and that we might need to develop the next “microscope” to detect this thing that some systems call “prana” other systems call “chi.”

Marianne Cirone: Exactly. I teach yoga teachers about what the philosophies in the East and the West say about what causes cancer. Really, no one is saying “cause” as much as what are the risk factors?

In Ayurveda, one of them is similar to what you’re saying about the dharma– it’s not living your life in accordance with your inner needs. And if that’s not causing the cancer, maybe it’s just bringing the immune system down enough so that whatever threats are around can take hold.

Kelly Turner: I think that’s a beautiful point to bring up, this idea of what causes cancer. My research doesn’t explain that. People are like, “Oh, so you’re saying if we do these nine things to get better, then not doing these nine things is what made us sick?” And I say, “No. You cannot make that assumption from this research.” That’s an illogical conclusion to make because we know very well that many of the chemicals that we humans have made on this earth lead directly to cancer. We inject rats with them every day in the laboratory in order to grow cancerous tumors in those rats. Chemicals cause cancer, genetic mutation from a radioactive disaster causes cancer.

Marianne Cirone: Right.

Kelly Turner: There are lots of things that cause cancer, including some things we may not realize yet. Just because something is helping a body to heal from cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that the absence of that thing necessarily caused the cancer.

I always like to say in every interview, and this goes back to what you were saying just now about how not being in touch with your dharma may not directly cause cancer, but it may lower your immune system enough that you become more susceptible to, say, a toxin that’s in the factory down the street from you, than your neighbor who might have a stronger immune system.

Really, one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves from getting cancer is to reduce inflammation in the body any way we can, and keep a strong and active immune system. When you look at the nine factors that radical remission survivors practice, that’s what these nine factors do. They’ve all been shown in clinical trials run by other researchers to strengthen the immune system.

What are Radical Remission survivors doing? Yeah, they’re doing these nine things, but if you take a step back and say, “Well, what’s the common thread between these nine things?” It’s activating this innate immune system that we were all born with.

Marianne Cirone: Right. I’ve been going to a holistic MD and she always did the cortisol saliva test and she would say, “I’ve been in practice 30 years and  many of my patients have abnormal cortisol rhythms and they don’t necessarily have breast cancer, but everyone who has breast cancer has this abnormal cortisol rhythm.”

That’s kind of something that Ayurveda has been saying, too, like it’s really important to honor the biological clock, and there is just finally getting to be tons of research about the cortisol levels, too, and how abnormal cortisol rhythms are correlated with worse outcomes and more symptoms.

Kelly Turner: Very interesting.

Marianne Cirone: Thank you so much for all of your research and information, Dr. Turner. Where can people go to find out more about your work?

Kelly Turner: The Radical Remission Project is a community of patients, friends, family members, health professionals and Radical Remission survivors. Our mission is two-fold: to collect and verify as many radical remission cases as possible, and to connect Radical Remission survivors with current cancer patients to provide hope, inspiration and social connection. Everyone, whether sick or well, is welcome to create a profile on the website.

We also offer Radical Remission workshops, including an online course, Radical Remission: Applying the 9 Healing Factors Into Your Own Life.  The course is for cancer patients, survivors, friends and family of cancer patients, or anyone who wants to prevent cancer.

See also:

A book review of Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds

The rest of our interview Radical Remission: The Nine Key Factors that Make a Real Difference for Cancer Patients with Dr. Kelly Turner.

The Radical Remission Project is looking for all patients, friends and family, health professionals, and Radical Remission survivors (when someone heals against all odds) to submit their own stories here.