I am just back from the Triumph Over Cancer Cancer Survivors Day celebration held by the Medical Center of the University of Chicago.
This was the fifteenth year I have been invited to host a table in the exhibition hall to let participants know about my work. There is a lot of competition to get invitations among medical practices, drug companies and community agencies, and I’m always pleased when the invitation arrives each year.
More than a thousand cancer patients and their significant others attend this event held at the Westin Hotel in the “Magnificent Mile” of downtown Chicago. It’s an upscale event. This year one of the speakers was United States Senator Barack Obama, the rising star of the Democratic Party. The host was CBS News anchor Jon Duncanson and the keynote address was given by actress (and cancer survivor) Meredith Baxter from the hit show “Family Ties.” The food is not bad either.
One of the most moving moments of the event is the calling of the Role of Survivors. In a room that seats more than a thousand people, the Master of Ceremonies asks people who have survived cancer one year to stand, then two years, then three. The role goes all the way up to twenty year survivors of cancer. At the end of the role call there are hundreds and hundreds of people standing who have been victorious over cancer. As someone who works with the cancer community a lot, this is inspiring.
This year I decided my table in the exhibition hall needed a facelift and so I retired the display originally made for me by the Marketing Department of La Grange Memorial Hospital a decade ago and created a new one (there is a photo in the Teaching and Events section of this web site). This year I also had the results of my 10-year outcomes study to show off, where people with cancer in my hospital program did better medically if they saw a hypnotist as well as a physician. That study has been well received, and at this point enough people have looked at it critically that I’m really confident of the results.
However, what I was proudest of was the fact that after all these years my practice is still here, and that it’s important enough that one of the greatest medical centers in the world wants to include it in their celebration. That’s a real high for me. When I began there were not too many people who thought I could make a success of it. After all, I’m a clergyman not a physician and that raised a lot of eyebrows.
The very first year the University of Chicago asked me to play a role in the Triumph Over Cancer celebration there were many other professionals there who were offering mental health services to the cancer community. They are all gone now. Their practices have closed.
Mostly, these folks were psychologists or counselors who thought they would apply the techniques of conventional psychotherapy to cancer patients. The idea was to diagnose the patients as having depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder and bill the insurance company to get paid.
The only problem with this elegant scheme is that as far as I know it’s never worked anywhere it’s been tried.
Cancer patients are not mentally ill. Being upset or worried are normal, not abnormal, reactions to having cancer. Not only does “uncovering” psychotherapy not help, it can actually make the mood (and I suspect the physical health) of the person living with cancer worse by dredging up things from the past that are best left to another time. In my experience, people who have cancer quickly figure this out.
What helps is motivational coaching combined with very precise hypnotic interventions to enhance resilience, and that’s what professional hypnotists do. The work has less to do with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, and more to do with scripture and the books written by Napoleon Hill, the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and Emile Coue’.
But years ago this wasn’t believed. In fact, at the very first Triumph Over Cancer event I was taken aside by a psychologist who was part a hypnosis organization that limits its membership to psychologists and physicians (and looks down its nose at the National Guild of Hypnotists). He said, “Little minister, you don’t belong here. You don’t know what you’re doing. But if you want to learn, just watch my dust.”
Well, his “dust” is all there is to see, as his practice has long since dried up and blown away. I try not to cackle about that as such emotions are not good for my spiritual health. However, I’ll be honest enough to acknowledge that the memory now makes me smile.
One of the organizers of the Triumph Over Cancer event and I were chatting over a cup of coffee before the doors opened. She commented on the fact that of all the practices who were interested in “psychosocial oncology,” years ago only the big nonprofit wellness centers and I remain. I laughed at this, and said that perhaps I should put a quote from Melville’s Moby Dick on my table. It would be the passage where Ishmael says “and I alone have survived to tell the tale.”
But I truly hope it doesn’t stay that way.
My dream is that more professional hypnotists will get involved in cancer care, and I do what I can to train them. Unfortunately, there are not many hypnotists in the world when compared to the vast number of other helping professions. However, someday I believe that will change. In the years I’ve practiced I’ve seen hypnotism go from being a “suspect” practice in medical circles to one that is widely recognized as helpful. Now all we have to do is convince enough people to train as practitioners so that the supply of professional hypnotists catches up to the demand.