The Art of Self-Induced Healing

An interview with Bernie Siegel

Over the past 30 years as an author, speaker, teacher and surgeon, Bernie Siegel, MD has touched thousands of lives all over the planet with healing.

With the emergence of his Exceptional Cancer Patients (ECaP) therapy programs in the late 70's, Bernie was among the first medical professionals to talk about patient empowerment and our abilities for self-healing and peaceful dying. Officially "retired from surgery but not from counseling people, teaching and lecturing," Bernie is currently a best-selling author (10 books) and an enthusiastic artist. A book of survivor stories, Faith, Hope & Healing, is scheduled for 2009 publication. Bernie is the keynote presenter at the 2008 Natural Living Expo September 27 in Sturbridge, MA.

Carol Bedrosian: I know from reading your books and hearing you speak that you are an excellent storyteller! Both from life experience and your medical practice, you have a seemingly endless supply of stories and parables you tell that make it easy for people to understand what holistic medicine is about. When did you discover storytelling?

Bernie Siegel: What I learned was this: when you get up before a scientific audience and you present as a physician trying to convince people that something is useful as a form of therapy, you get into arguments about statistics, validity, etc. What I learned was if you got up and told a story, it didn't threaten the audience. When one of my patients did well, I discovered they always had a story to tell me about what went on in their life. There was always something behind it. I lived this experience, and saw the shift from beliefs to experience. Doctors are looking for evidence, for information. As Paul Young points out, when you go around saying, "I can't believe that," or "This is what I believe," you close your mind. But if you say, "Let me see what I experience…"

Carol Bedrosian: Your practices and ideas haven't always jived with the mainstream medical community. Did you find many restrictions or challenges to your way of practicing over the years?

Bernie Siegel: No. Number one, I had a very good reputation as a surgeon. It was more likely people would say, "He's nuts," rather than, "He's trying to get away with something." But what happened was that people thought my ideas were nuts, but then they realized that the patients were doing better, so it's good. The nurses are the ones who always supported me, even something as simple as music in the operating room.

Carol Bedrosian: Is music standard in operating rooms now?

Bernie Siegel: Oh yeah. Most of them now incorporate music, pleasant aromas — it's the environment you're creating. Most doctors would initially say, "No," to these changes, but they hadn't lived the disease. There's a physician I know who calls doctors "the tourists" and "the natives." The natives know the experience of the disease, and the tourists are treating the diagnosis and not the person and their experience. There are many more doctors now who have had cancer — or their spouses have had cancer — and they write books saying, "Uh oh, this is different." I have books by oncologists saying, "I want to apologize to Dr. Siegel. I thought he was nuts."

Carol Bedrosian: If you're seeing this shift in the medical community, why do we still have such a reliance on pharmaceuticals and surgery as our main forms of healthcare?

Bernie Siegel: I think the shift is beginning to happen but it is literally 30 years behind what it ought to be because you have to shift the thinking in order to do the research and document even simple things, such as loneliness affecting genes that control the immune system. Or that laughter helps cancer patients live longer. But you have to get to a point where somebody will say, "We'll fund that study." As we begin doing that more, I think we'll begin to see that what we need to communicate with are the genes, so there will still be a pharmaceutical industry, but it will be a healthier one because it will be mimicking natural product. In other words, when you're happy, when you're loving, what's happening in your body? That's what the future will be. How do we put a chemical in, a protein molecule, that says to your genes, "I'm happy, I'm loving. So, ya' know, heal me. I like living."

Carol Bedrosian: That's a pretty revolutionary idea.

Bernie Siegel: The problem is that the pharmaceutical industry, in a sense, supports medicine. If you open a medical journal and look at an ad, it basically says I was depressed. I went to my physician. He prescribed an anti-depressant. Everything's wonderful now. And I wrote to the pharmaceutical company and the New England Journal of Medicine and I said, this is a disaster. I'm depressed; my family's been killed in a plane crash. I go to my doctor, he doesn't ask me what happened, just says, "Here's the pill." I said, put another line in at least that says, "Ya' know, tell me why you're depressed." Not just, "Here's a prescription." But that's what psychiatrists are being taught now and the ones who care about people are miserable because they're told not to talk, see them in a month and give them a new prescription. But when I look through the New England Journal of Medicine, I don't remember exactly, but it might have been 80% of the pages were pharmaceutical ads. So who's paying for the journal?

Part of them problem is the government. If the government would reward companies for showing that a natural product is beneficial to your health then they might do that research. But, you see, if I spent two million dollars proving that eating a banana every day is good for you, then I've wasted two million dollars because I don't make bananas and I can't patent them. If the government said, "Spend money showing that something is worthwhile, then we'll give you a tax reduction," you will gain something.

A big part of the problem is that we're not exposed to new information in medical school. So again, that's when the mind gets shut down and you don't get to see all these other resources. One of our kids is in Switzerland now getting treatment for some things because he just got so fed up with the system here. There the MD's have studied and have degrees in things like naturopathy and homeopathy because it's part of their curriculum and medical education. They don't have a closed mind. And that's what needs to happen. We need to integrate all these things so it's part of our medical information and education. We're not really trained to care for people. We're trained about disease. If it became part of the medical information stream, more physicians would be open-minded to exploring it.

Carol Bedrosian: How can it become part of that stream?

Bernie Siegel: It has to start with the medical school level and also the various medical societies. I've written to the American College of Surgeons because the pledge that you take to join the College says in the second line, "I will deal with patients as I would wish to be dealt with if I were in the patient's position." I don't want someone to deal with me; I want somebody to care for me. And that's part of the problem; we have this wall. We don't want to know the people and then we don't treat them as people, and that's what patients complain about. I went to a meeting for cancer patients about what do you want to ask the doctors. And they all said things like knock on my door, say hello and goodbye, look me in the eye when you talk to me. It was always to treat me like a person.

Carol Bedrosian: Yes, it has become an industry. We've moved to that level and the doctors have to protect themselves.

Bernie Siegel: The insurance companies are also a big problem. Years ago when I practiced, you filled out a form, you signed your name to it and you mailed it in and they sent you the money. Now with all the electronics and all the rules and regulations and everybody's checking on every letter and number, it drives doctors and offices crazy trying to make sure you said the right things and classified it as the right disease with the right number of words. Everybody is protecting themselves.

Carol Bedrosian: What is our potential to use self-healing to cure sickness and disease?

Bernie Siegel: The wonderful term that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn uses in his book Cancer Ward [1968 novel] is part of what woke me up. The symbol of a butterfly is transformation and that's almost an unconscious thing with people because of the caterpillar dissolving away and, boom, we get a butterfly, though he has to struggle to get out and survive. But Solzhenitsyn has a man sitting in the ward and one of them says, "I was looking in the medical library and it says there are cases of self-induced healing." Then a rainbow-colored butterfly flutters out of the great open book and they all held up their cheeks and foreheads for a healing touch. And I thought…ahhh…self-induced healing.

Think about it. What do we call these things? Spontaneous remissions, miracles. When somebody has a spontaneous remission or a miracle, you don't ask, "What did you do? How did you manage that?" If we had labeled those cases self-induced healing a hundred years ago, we may have studied them and said, "Okay, how come your cancer disappeared, or whatever it is, and you're alive today?" These patients would have taught us something because there's what I call survival behavior; in other words, there's a personality behavior to people who don't die on schedule and outlive statistics. And that's what needs to be taught to everyone. You know, Monday mornings we have more heart attacks, strokes, suicides and illnesses. And its very obvious that it has to do with how people feel about their work. When you have meaning in your life and work, going to work isn't work. It becomes a very different situation.

Carol Bedrosian: So you think the future of medicine is self-induced healing?

Bernie Siegel: Yes, that's what we'll be studying because that's at the genetic level. There's a very interesting book called The Biology of Belief by a genesis named Bruce Lipton. He said, "Bernie, I agree with you. The gene doesn't make the decision; it's the internal environment that triggers the gene. His example is that you want to build a house, so you have to pick a blueprint. The genes are like the blueprint. But what goes on inside? And so the identical twins who don't get the same experiences every day don't get the same diseases at the same age all the time.

Carol Bedrosian: Because the internal environment is different.

Bernie Siegel: Right, because one twin might be a sweet, submissive little girl who doesn't ever express anger and the other one's a devil having a wonderful life. And if you ask an audience who's going to get breast cancer, they all vote for the good kid. This is not an accident. Again, if you look at people's personalities you can predict who will get what disease because it affects their genetics. This is about human potential. This is about participation and not the guilt, blame and shame that parents, teachers and religions bestow on us.

Parenting is the number one public health issue. You say you want to change things, then bring up every kid loved and you don't have to worry anymore. This is statistically valid. The kids who say my parents love me, by midlife are generally healthier, they haven't had a major illness. If you put a sign up saying smoking is no good for you, that doesn't stop everybody. But when you say, "I love you," and then that person learns how to love themselves, they are more likely to say, "I'm not going to poison myself. I'm going to exercise. I'm not going to weigh 300 lbs just to reward myself for what I never got from anybody else," because addictions are ways to reward yourself and feel good in an unhealthy, sick way. The drugs, the alcohol, the food, they don't replace it. And you end up killing yourself.

Carol Bedrosian: Your medicine is about loving yourself, loving others?

Bernie Siegel: If you love yourself — and that doesn't mean you're perfect — you don't have to like yourself or other people but you love them and you love yourself. So when your child feels loved like a divine child, they treat themselves differently. That doesn't mean you don't discipline them. I always tell people if you want advice on parenting, get advice on how to raise the puppy and go and raise your kids that way.

Carol Bedrosian is publisher and editor of Spirit of Change Magazine and co-producer of the Natural Living Expo. Visit