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Bernie Siegel

camp when being sick and unable to work meant they were put to death.

David: Why do you think that the expression of emotion is important for our health, and why do you think that love has such powerful healing potential?

Bernie: If you don’t get your anger out and express it, then you turn it inward, and it builds into resentment and hatred. It stays in you, and really breaks you down. You start attacking yourself. A lot of people with autoimmune diseases have issues with anger that they have held in. As a matter of fact, one doctor did a study with twin sisters that sheds light on this. If you ask this of an audience people always have the right answer. You say, one girl is very sweet and she does everything to make her parents happy. She pleases everyone, and internalizes her anger. Then her twin sister is a little devil. Who do you think develops breast cancer? Everybody votes for the good girl. So when you deny your needs and your feelings you’re hurting and attacking yourself.

Ashley Montagu, the anthropologist, has written a lot on love. Love changes you. The touch, the relationship, the connection changes you. When you’re loving, every cell in your body is getting a very significant message about how wonderful life is, so it does its best to keep you alive and healthy, because it knows you’re enjoying life. Some of that is simple chemistry. Studies have been done that show if you pet your dog your oxytocin and serotonin levels go up. Now these are hormones and brain chemicals that make you feel good and help you to connect. It’s the kind of feelings that a woman who delivers a baby experiences, how she connects with that infant. So when you’re loving you are connected to everything and everybody.

I don’t know if you saw Time magazine a couple of weeks ago, but the cover story was about a “God gene”. See, I think that’s mislabeled. It should be a “love gene”. Some people are literally born with what this man calls a “God gene”, and in his description of what this means, he poses twenty questions to see whether you might have it or not. But the questions are about how you see yourself connected to the universe, and to other people, and a lot of other things that are more about love than God. So if your born with a “love gene” it enhances your life and connection to others.

But, I have to say, this is where our parenting enters in, and all our life experience. My next book is about how to be a healthy and loving parent. You could have the gene and have abusive parents who destroy everything that’s in you–all your meaning and divinity, and make you into a total failure–or, I think, you can be born without the love gene and have incredibly loving parents who, in a sense, instill it in you. The majority of the world has neither. So what we see is that those who grow up with love take better care of themselves, because they can accept themselves for who they are, and work at becoming a better person. Rather than saying, “You’re a failure. God is punishing you. You’re terrible,” they can say, “Okay, let me use this pain and learn from it. Let me use criticism to change and grow, and to become a better person.”

But those who don’t grow up with that kind of self-acceptance and love have a lot of trouble with life. One study with Harvard students showed that those who didn’t feel their parents loved them had a significantly higher chance of suffering from a major illness later in life–and this was irregardless of parents smoking, committing suicide, or being mass murderers. It really focused on the love issue. If they said, “my parents loved me”, thirty-five years after graduation, one out four had suffered a major illness. And of those who said, “my parents didn’t love me”, I think ninety-eight percent had suffered a major illness.

So again, what I always see is, we take better care of our pets than we do ourselves. People smoke outdoors and tell you they do it to protect their animals. Because their pets had asthma and lung cancer they now smoke outdoors so they’re not killing their pet, and they don’t say a word about the fact that they’re killing themselves.

David: What are some of the personality characteristics that exceptional cancer patients have?

Bernie: In a broad perspective, I’d say that they express their emotion, including appropriate anger. They seek knowledge, and they combine the knowledge with their willingness to take action, so that the inspiration and the information go together. I’m always saying knowledge isn’t power if you don’t have inspiration. Let me put it simply, you don’t smoke because you’re stupid, okay. You know it isn’t good for you, but you do it anyway. So when the inspiration and the meaning come into your life, then you might put the cigarette out. And last but not least, they have a spiritual support basis. Now this is not about religion or theology as much as it is faith that a god, or a support, is out there. It’s not about being punished for breaking the rules of your religion, but rather a constant support.

In terms of specific questions to help determine who will be a long-term survivor, Dr. George Solomon, a psychiatrist, came up with the following questions when AIDS first broke out. Briefly, the questions he used are: Do you have a sense of meaning in your life? Are you able to express anger appropriately? Can you ask for help from friends and family when you need it? Can you say no when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do? Are you in charge of what is prescribed for you versus letting others tell you what to do? In other words, you make the decisions.

Do you have enough play in your life? I define play as things that make you lose track of time, that become very meaningful and healthy for you. Do you use your emotions and feelings to help guide you and direct you? Or do you become depressed about being depressed, and just have a downward spiral, so that you’re living a role in your life to the detriment of your own needs? See, because some people give up their lives to please everybody else, and then when they learn they have a life-threatening illness they stop doing what others wanted them to do, and start living their own life. And my way of saying it is, how would you introduce yourself to God? It isn’t about whether you have kids, a job, or whatever. It’s about identifying with that divine source, that you’re made of the same thing.

David: What are some of the suggestions that you would make to help improve the Western medical profession?

Bernie: (laughter) One simple suggestion would be to put every doctor into a hospital bed for a week as a patient. Put them in a hospital where they are not known, and have them admitted with a life-threatening illness as their diagnosis. Then let them stay there.

Another suggestion is to teach doctors how to communicate. If you take the word “words”, as one of our children did, and repeat it in an art project, with no space between the words, you realize that words become wordswords, swords. Just today I got a phone call from somebody who was waking from surgery and being told how bad things were. From the minute that she woke up they started telling her how terrible her diagnosis was and what’s going to happen to her. That really destroys the patient. Most doctors aren’t aware of what they’re doing, because they haven’t been lying in that bed.

So many doctors think differently after they get sick, or after their loved ones get sick. Then they say, whoops, it’s not a diagnosis, it’s an experience. And, again, that’s what I try to teach doctors–people are living an experience. They’re not living a diagnosis. You have to deal with the person and their life, and what they’re going through. Those are the things that I think we should work on in our training–how to deal with our emotions and how to express them–and not just have meetings about “what do you think?” and “how do we classify this death or complication?” Rather, we would discuss how it feels to have a patient that you’re taking care of die, or what it feels like to have someone come into your office that you can’t cure. I mean, we can’t even use the word death. You go to a hospital, and everybody talks about “failures”, “passing”, and “loss”, and nobody says so-and-so died, because that word just carries too much emotion for people.

See, what changed me was a patient saying, “I need to know how to live between office visits.” That’s what doctors have to do. The word “doctor” is derived from the word “teacher”, and we have stopped teaching people how to live. Doctors of the past did, because they didn’t have all this technology, and they had to care for people that they also knew. Today we don’t even know the patients we’re taking care of. That’s why there are all these mistakes in the operating room, and all these medical errors–because we’re taking care of diseases, room numbers, and diagnoses, and not people. So that’s important.

David: What do you think a conventional Western doctor can learn from an indigenous shaman?

Bernie: Again, it’s about the person–seeing him or her as a total unit, so that you look at their life. It’s something I learned to do–to ask what are you living? What are you experiencing? The words that popped out of people always amazed me, because they always related to their life. Somebody might say words like “failure”, “roadblock”, “draining”, or “burden” to describe his or her life. These are words that people use. They were always about their life. So then I would work at, let’s

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