Book review: Radical Remission, Surviving cancer against all

This book has filled a space that has needed filling for many years.  It manages to tackle the subject of radical remissions from terminal cancer in a remarkably matter of fact and not at all airy-fairy way.  I always thought it strange that no one was interested in unusual recoveries, and have come across a handful of such recoveries in my work and life.  It seemed many of these people had to go it alone as health professionals found it difficult to even admit the possibility that non-medical factors might play a part in an individual’s recovery. 

What shines out through this book is the essential truth that everyone is different, that their cancer has developed differently, and that the things that they decide to do to aid their recovery are all different.  The stories illustrate the wonderful diversity of human beings and how, when they pay good attention to themselves, they can tune into their own needs in a way that can lead to profound healing.  Kelly Turner writes beautifully and is clearly following her passion to learn about what lies at the heart of peoples’ experiences of radical remission.

After listening and documenting many stories of remission she uncovers the top nine most common factors that seem to be relevant in these peoples’ journeys of recovery.  The factors aren’t anything particularly obscure and mostly aren’t extortionately expensive.  In the order she lists them they are: radically changing your diet, taking control of your health, following your intuition, using herbs and supplements, releasing suppressed emotions, increasing positive emotions, embracing social support, deepening your spiritual connection, having strong reasons for living.  She mentions at the end of the book that exercise might have been the 10th key factor but that for most of the people she studied, at the time of their diagnosis, they were too weak to exercise.  She found that most people did begin to exercise as they started to heal and feel better, and she is convinced that moving our bodies is essential for our health. 

Although the process of tuning into our own feelings, bodies and minds can sound fairly simple, doing so is not necessarily easy.  We have mostly become rather distanced from our inner wisdom. Our relationships with nature and the seasons often suffer as a result of our modern, busy lives. The shock and fear that comes with a cancer diagnosis can shake us to our core (even more so when secondary disease is also detected) and in the shock, much that had seemed important falls away so that everything can seem clearer and priorities emerge.  The desire to live, if it shows itself to be strongly present, can drive people to really search inside for the best way through the crisis.  The stories show us how committed people can be when they are following their own inner wisdom even though they have no way of knowing whether they will find a way through.

Some of the factors do need more explanation and the author manages to provide this clearly and comprehensively.  Again it becomes clear that there isn’t one right way of doing anything and the range of ways that people pursue their purpose are many, various, and enterprising.  Some people have a strong intuitive sense of what they need to do from early on, whereas others embark on a major search involving extensive learning and experimenting and make many changes along the way.  

The frequently cited reason given by doctors to explain why they haven’t looked into the ways that some people have survived cancer against all odds is that these individuals are experiencing unexplained remissions and they wouldn’t want to ‘give false hope’ to anyone.  In fact, as Kelly Turner establishes, any hope given would not be false as cases of remarkable remission are true.  The worry about giving false hope is, however, something that prevails in the NHS.  We have moved in less than a century from withholding the facts of cancer diagnosis (not using the word cancer at all) to stating the facts and the likely survival time, in almost concrete terms.  Yet these ‘facts’ are based on statistics and have no certainty in any individual case.  We know very well that as humans one of the greatest predictors of behaviour is expectation and that the words of doctors carry great weight.  Hope can be eradicated very effectively by badly chosen words.  We can never know which of our patients may have the possibility and capacity to survive against all odds, and it would be fairly easy to include in any discussion about prognosis a sentence about the impossibility of knowing how any one person will do and that the person themselves is best placed to know what may most help them to recover from their illness.  As with every profession doctors and nurses are all very different and bring their own personality and experience to their work.  Some are very aware of these issues and take great care in their communications with patients that they encourage and support so that the person is able to maintain some hope amidst the reality of a very dangerous situation.

Kelly Turner is keen that her website www.radicalremission.com develops to become a source of ‘community and connection between current cancer patients and radical remission survivors’.  I think this is a great aim, and I’m sure many will agree.  In my personal work as a life coach who has had cancer (albeit not with a terminal diagnosis) we use the three words ‘inspire, empower and equip’ to describe our intention when we work with people who are living with and beyond cancer.  Kelly Turner is doing all three very effectively with her book and her work.  Whether or not any one individual will be able to be cured from their disease will always be uncertain.  Turner found that radical remission survivors describe their experiences as transformational and cherish them deeply.  She makes the distinction between curing (getting rid of disease) and healing (becoming whole) and suggests that even though ‘curing is only sometimes possible, healing is always possible’.  Healing is beneficial whether or not we have a day left to live or 50 years. Finding more happiness and purpose and bringing more healthy behaviour into our lives, is worthwhile in and of itself, and is the essence of living well.  I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy and benefit from reading this book.

Book review by Dr Jo Lee

Joanne Lee