On January 26, 1982, at eight o'clock in the morning, I entered Cleveland's Suburban Hospital for a breast augmentation, a simple outpatient procedure, to be performed by Dr. Sheldon Artz. At two in the afternoon, I exited the hospital with breast cancer. Before Dr. Artz inserted the silicon implants, he sent to the biopsy lab a tissue sample of a lump I had asked him to look at "while I was open." The lab reported back that the lump was tubular carcinoma of the right breast.
The doctor had tears in his eyes as he stood at my bedside in the recovery room. He wanted to quickly schedule me into the hospital for a mastectomy. I'm sure he expected my immediate panicky acquiescence. I said no, I had to think. But thinking was the last thing I was able to do. All my life, cancer had been the one disease that terrified me. The diagnosis of cancer blew my mind: It stunned me into a kind of cognitive trance. That afternoon, I was released from the hospital with a sore chest, the beautiful new 34Bs I had coveted since puberty, and a vacant mind. It wasn't that I questioned my former ideas, but that suddenly I had no ideas. As to my emotions, they consisted of vague, muted fears that periodically erupted into spurts of panic. Customary patterns of thought could not have been more demolished if I'd had a lobotomy.
My former husband and all-time friend, Don, who had chauffeured me to the hospital that morning, drove me home in stony silence through a typically cold, grey, Cleveland day. At home, my mental vacuity continued. In the minute it took for the doctor, who sobbed as he spoke, to say, "I cut right through it, it's cancer, all for nothing [the implants], all for nothing!" the world became meaningless to me. It was as though the world were a balloon that had been punctured by the word "cancer." Objects around me had no import, no associations beyond their literal ones: This was a tea kettle. You put water into it. You lit a fire under it. When the water boiled, you poured it over a tea bag. Then you opened your mouth and drank. This other object was a toilet. After your body used it, you flushed. The state of my mind was what Buddhists refer to as "beginners' mind," mind dissociated from memory and its judgments, an amnesia not of facts but of signification.
That evening, Don brought some books and cassette tapes related to religions he labeled "New Thought." For two years he had tried to proselytize me and I had staunchly scoffed at the absurdity of New Thought ideas. Now, he promised they would comfort me, and I was open to any possible source of comfort. I read avidly for the next five days. My mind was no longer blocked by the quick rebuttals of habitual skepticism and cynicism, and what I read amazed and astounded me. Could this be the truth? Was it possible that perfect health could be mine? Was it possible that happiness was my birthright that I had only to claim? Could it be that the ubiquity of God, which Judaism and Christianity had always taught, meant precisely that?--in here, out there, everywhere, without the smallest micrometer of an interstice between me and Him?
Seven days after the surgery, I was certain that these ideas not only were possible, they were the truth of human existence: On the evening of the fifth day, I experienced what I now call a minor revelation, minor only relative to the revelation that occurred on the seventh day (February 1, 1982) at midnight, which no word can name nor tongue utter.
The first revelation brought a vision of Jesus. The second took me into the presence of the Very God. After the revelation, I was not the same person, and I was not my own agent. Reality rearranged itself into a new system, and I was impelled to live my life in a new way. My old eyes had been removed and new ones placed in their sockets. These new eyes saw that the world was not the world I had lived in all my life, but the one described by poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will shine out like shining from shook foil."
For weeks after the revelation, I felt as though my body was surrounded by a silvery aura and that my face shone like Moses' face when he descended from Mt. Sinai. When I looked in the mirror, I saw no aura, but I did see a countenance free of fear, one that, for the first time in my life, I truly liked.
And I knew that I was healed.
For several months I hugged the revelation to my heart as though it were a treasure too precious to share with anyone. Verbalizing would defile it. When I attempted to speak of it, I wept. When finally I told my closest friends, their reaction deeply perplexed and disappointed me. They were more frightened by the cancer than strengthened by the healing, more alarmed by the dreaded disease than awed by the wondrous knowledge I had gained. I thought they would be overwhelmed by the account of my experience and overjoyed because what had happened to me could happen to them--what has been done, can be done. But they doubted the healing or dismissed it as a fortuitous accident. Some doubted the diagnosis of cancer entirely, which of course allowed them to dismiss any idea of healing. One friend did accept the healing as a miracle. But not one of the three "got" what I was telling them about their own extraordinary healing powers.
Five years elapsed before I spoke of my experience again. I realized that in order to convince ordinary people, I needed to find evidence of self-healing grounded in everyday life and unrelated to mysticism. I needed the kind of proof that would appeal to the intelligence of reasonable people. I found that proof in the placebo effect. The placebo effect is the good news of our time: It says, "You have been cured by nothing but yourself."
In its popular definition, the placebo effect means a cure brought about by a medicine or a procedure, say, surgery, that afterward is revealed to be a sham--merely a sugar pill or mock surgery performed with a rubber knife. And that is exactly correct. The placebo effect is an effect with no external cause.
Copyright © 2001
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