The Vedic Notion of Cancer: A Bug in the Software
Staring down the barrel of a microscope at the fresh smear of Paula Rizzi’s blood, I saw white blood cells with big blue nuclei instead of their usual lobular shape. “Undifferentiated” was the word going through my mind. Like the itinerants bumming quarters a block east on Montreal’s St. Lawrence Street while hiding open Labatt Bleue bottles inside paper bags, the cells had lost their purpose in the society of cells. They lacked the organelles to do anything more useful than divide. Although I was just a resident, and the only doctor on duty that night at the small Royal Edward Chest Hospital, my suspicions had been confirmed: acute myelocytic leukemia, not exactly the type of patient who could benefit best from this facility.
The ER doc who admitted her to the specialty hospital must have been in a hurry to go home, I thought, when Paula Rizzi told him she had left chest pains just a few weeks after being given an inhaler for mild asthma. To me she looked pale and I found a large spleen causing her “chest” pain. Pinpoint brown hemorrhages on her legs hinted she lacked platelets and that I should peek at a blood smear. Now I had to go face her with the news that rebellious, undifferentiated cells were dividing purposelessly in her bone marrow, crowding out the ones she needed to properly produce her blood elements.
Modern medicine recognizes cancer as a distortion of the sequence of base codes determining the structure of the DNA molecule that holds our genetic information. The intelligence in DNA guides a cell to develop and perform its different functions, including growing from an undifferentiated, primordial stem cell into a cell with specific structures to carry out its role. For example, an undifferentiated bone marrow cell can develop into the precursor of a red blood cell, a white blood cell or a platelet. All cells are ultimately derived from a stem cell, which itself is a field of all possibilities. Liver cells, blood cells, kidney cells, breast cells — all are easily identified under a microscope because they have differentiated and taken on unique specific morphologies.
Cancer Cell Dharma
In cancer, the information contained in the DNA has been somehow altered or mutated. Radiation and sunlight are known to create free radicals that alter the genetic information through oxidation. Toxins, pollutants, and even cosmic rays may do the same. Viruses are known causes of certain tumors such as cervical cancer, while a predisposition to colon and breast cancer may be inherited. Aging is associated with the accumulation of intracellular debris, promoting errors and impairing the cell’s self-repair mechanisms. In every case, distortion of the genetic information is involved. A weak immune system permits a rogue cell to gain a foothold and begin to divide.
Quantum field theorists state that order in nature is the expression of a highly ordered unified field which gives rise to all matter and force fields and that DNA is the first biological expression of this field. Charaka Samhita, the oldest known treatise on medicine and the encyclopedic source of the science of Ayurveda, also states the same notion that human physiology is the expression of cosmic intelligence. Ayurveda defines the cause of cancer as a distortion of this repository of intelligence. Cancer is regarded as a tissue (dhatu) that has lost the memory (smriti) of this field of intelligence, which normally guides its functioning and growth. Like the cloudy reflection of the sun in a glass of muddy water, the physiology loses its ability to express this infinite order without distortion. The cell ceases to evolve according to its natural role in the society of cells.
There is a concept in Ayurveda called dharma, meaning the most effortless and evolutionary life-supporting path. In some societies it is customary for one’s dharma to be tied to a family tradition: a tailor wants her daughter to be a tailor, a mother wants her progeny to carry on the family business. Parents provide the knowledge for the child to effortlessly take her role in society. A broader understanding regards dharma as a support on which Veda, the field of pure intelligence, guides one’s evolution. One can become whatever one wants to become in life, but certain paths are effortless and natural. Similarly, cells have rules. They need to divide and proliferate, but are programmed to stop the process when they arrive at boundaries.
One can interpret the ancient Sanskrit treatise’s understanding of cancer as a distortion of genetic intelligence that is passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter cell. A cancer cell has lost touch with its proper tradition, its dharma. It has become a rebel, oblivious to its surrounding environment. Charaka Samhita sees cancer as a software problem.
Cancer Cell Repair
The Ayurvedic approach to cancer is to correct these bugs by restoring the cell’s memory of how to differentiate into a purposeful cell. This is done in two ways: first, by eliminating residues that might obstruct the flow of the body’s inner intelligence. This corresponds to one of modern medicine’s understanding of cancer: intracellular debris prevents the error-free replication of the DNA molecule. For an Ayurvedic physician, this means removing ama from the system. Ama is a residue of inefficient digestion and metabolism that accumulates in the tissues, leading to disease and blocking self-repair. Ayurvedic diagnosis focuses on determining the imbalances creating ama and thereby perpetuating the bug in the body’s software.
Second, Ayurveda aims to restore the body’s connection with the field of pure intelligence of which it is an expression. Quantum physics describes a field of perfect harmony, orderliness, balance and integration, exactly the qualities Ayurveda attributes to Veda, the blueprint of the human physiology. Conscious experience of these qualities is the essential basis of the restoration of health. In our medical practice, we teach the Transcendental Meditation technique as a means for allowing the awareness to touch, even for a few moments, on this source of inner orderliness.
Because nature herself is the most elegant source of intelligence, researchers have been evaluating the entire world of plants for cancer remedies, including herbs that have traditionally been used in Ayurveda as immune modulators. Our group has been testing their efficacy in test tubes and animals, as well as in humans for preventing carcinogenesis and neutralizing free radicals. The results have been encouraging: a number of published studies suggest that several Ayurvedic preparations may have roles in cancer prevention and in scavenging the oxygen radicals generated during cancer chemotherapy. 123 women receiving chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer were randomly divided into a group getting Ayurvedic antioxidants and a control group getting a similar tasting placebo paste and tablet. The group getting the active herbs had significantly fewer side effects from the treatments as well as a better outcome.
Paula Rizzi had come to the ER alone, thinking she only had asthma, and now she was trying to make sense of some devastating news. At my request the ambulance from the Royal Victoria was coming to pick her up without its flashing lights and siren. I attached the microscope slide with the rebellious, undifferentiated cells to my notes, and put it in her hands as if to emphasize that now she was joining the battle. We held hands and talked until the ambulance arrived about how her coming crusade with chemo was going to play an important role in accomplishing her purpose on Earth. It was the first of many times I would have to be the bearer of bad news and every time has been just as hard. I try to remind myself that like every cell, I have a tradition to follow and boundaries to respect, and nature takes care of the rest.
Jay Glaser, MD is a board-certified internist and medical director of Lancaster Ayurveda Medical Center in Sterling, MA.