On Life — Can We Cure Cancer and Depression By Rethinking How We’re Looking at Those Diseases?

What can the history of human diseases teach us about their future? And are there lessons to be learned from new fields of psychology and century-old eastern philosophy in how to handle the growing numbers of chronic and mental illnesses?

Header illustration containing the title and a giant pill
Header image by siyanaivanova.nl

So many questions, so few answers. I want to kick it off with a very important statement — I’m not a doctor, nor a psychologist, nor someone who has dedicated her career to curing people of either physical or mental illnesses. But seeing how both cancer and depression are seen as incurable modern-days diseases, some speculations can’t harm, right?

Like I said, I have dedicated zero hours to the world of medicine or psychiatry. I just have an internet connection and a curious mind, and being a designer — the urge to solve problems. And recently, I have been asking myself a lot of unanswerable questions, which leads to even more curiosity. See… I’ve been low-key obsessed with psychology for the better part of my life, although I’ve never studied it professionally (meaning in a Uni). Fight Club introduce me to Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder) so I went on to read books like Sybil, Today I’m Alice, Switching Time, etc. From there I went full science mode starting with Freud & Co. to comprehend psychoanalysis and the unconsciousness better. That took me on a path to cognitive psychology, trying to understand (quite unsuccessfully) the mysteries of memory, problem-solving, and creativity. Then came an interest in behaviorism, the classical conditioning by Ivan Pavlov, but also the works of Edwin Lynn Thorndike, and even radical conditioning by John B Watson and B.F. Skinner. It wasn't my cup of tea. I even gave biological psychology (on a chemical level), social psychology, and theoretical psychology a go, but none of those were able to fulfill my psychology-hobbyist brain. It felt like everything I was reading, was either a grain of sand in the Saharas or a recycled version of the previous one. So 10+ years of reading scientific psychology books and published studies, I still didn’t really know anything about the mind. I learned mostly that we’re all very fucked up and sick and unconsciously in love (and rival) with our moms and dads (thanks Freud, very helpful). And then, somewhere seven years ago, I stumbled upon humanistic psychology (the psychology field that focuses on self-actualization and personal growth), with figures like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. I remember thinking — Finally, a bunch of psychologists that smiled on pictures from time to time, everyone else mentioned above looked very sad and depressed on every picture I had seen. Isn’t it funny how sad psychologists study sad things and happy psychologists study growth and happiness?

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A few books on psychology from my bookshelf. Can you spot the one I’ve read more than 10 times?

Anyway, one of the most recent movements in humanistic psychology is positive psychology. See.. most of the above-mentioned psychology movements are aiming at trying to fix what is broken, instead of studying and learning from the ‘unbroken’ ones. Positive psychology is different. It doesn’t study the average, and most of the time, it doesn’t focus on the below average as well. It focuses mainly on the way-above average or on the individual data outliers in studies. Seven years ago, I discovered a TED talk by Shawn Achor that was about to change my life. Shawn blew my then puberty brain with his witty stories, and with one sentence in particular:

“It’s not that reality shapes us, but that the lens through which we view the world shapes reality, and if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness but we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time”

If reality is a personal lens through which we see and shape the world, why have we spend the better part of our scientific pursuit trying to fix what is ‘broken’, even though broken is a very relative term? Isn’t it a bit weird and funny how so many, if not all, who have dedicated their whole life and career to psychology, have almost always done that to cure us of something not even definable, like ‘insanity’?

The life-changing Ted talk

It might sound like common sense by now, but damn, was I mind-blown when this thought of a personalized-reality hit home. I found out that this dude wrote a book on the subject called The Happiness Advantage, and I bought it, read it, re-read it, philosophized it, and realized that nothing I’ve read made as much sense as this book or the whole approach of positive psychology really. Being happy, positive psychology states, has such a tremendously positive effect on your body and mind that it’s almost hard to believe, even though scientific research has proven that, time after time. Here are a few quite fascinating experiments to illustrate my point (all coming straight out of Happiness Advantage by Shawn Anchor):

In 1979 a week-long experiment was conducted on a group of 75-year-old men. Then went on a weekly retreat, that was designed ‘to bring them 20 years back in time’. They had to bring only things from before 1959, dress and act like it was 20 years earlier, had ID batches with pictures of them when they were 55 years old, talked about presidents from 20 years ago etc. Before the retreat started, those men were of course tested on every aspect one can assume deteriorates with age (physical strength, perfection, cognition, memory etc.). After the retreat, they tested again for all those things and it turned out that most men had improved in every category. To name a few: Their eyesight improved by 10%, their memory improves as well, even intelligence (long thought to be fixed after puberty) moved up. They appeared even younger (when pictures of the men were rated by random people not involved with the research). Ellen Langer, the psychologist who came up with this experiment, wanted to prove that our ‘mental construction’ (who we think we are) has a direct influence upon the physical aging process. And quite successfully, she did prove that, after taking a bunch of men 20 years back in time.

Or this one:

What to do when you feel a negative emotion? The positive psychology answer to that is self-awareness. The quickest way to recover from high levels of distress (any negative emotion really) is to identify how you’re feeling at that moment and put those feelings into words. Brain scans show that verbal information almost immediately diminishes the power of those negative emotions, improving your well-being and enhancing decision-making skills.

Next time an anxiety or panic attack hits you, or anger takes over, just greet them like you see a good friend. Articulating negative emotions in words is one of the best ways to fully get rid of those, as fast as they arrived, science & spirituality agrees. Shawn’s book is filled with a lot of scientific and almost magical experiments. But what struck me the most, re-reading his book is this — I always thought that emotions are a brain thingy, but apparently, they are as much a body cause and reaction as the brain’s. This thought is not articulated in the book, it’s more of a conclusion that I arrived at, reading about happiness improving the immune system (and depression and stress weakening it), or how the idea and experience that you’re 20 years will change your physical body.

After a throughout research on the internet about emotions and the body, I was unpleasantly surprised with how little there is to find about it. There are hundreds of different approaches to psychology, very fixated on the brain alone. There are thousands of medical professions and also studies focused on the body alone. But the combination of both and how they either help or destroy one another is almost nowhere to be found. Why?

I don’t know. I might have a clue though. In 2014, a very interesting study was conducted by L. Nummenmaa, E. Glerean, R. Hari, and J. K. Hietanen. Hundreds of people were presented with “two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus”. The outcome was pretty unanimous, visualized in the figure below.

This is what more than 700 people visualized they felt, when they were presented with the word ‘sadness’, a story about sadness, a sad movie or a sad facial expression.

Isn’t it a wonderfully weird thing that people actually feel emotions in their body? It surely gives us an unforeseen advantage towards the upcoming Artificial Intelligence era. AI’s are already here and they can think and analyze way better than you, but they might need a heart, guts, blood, and in general a body to be able to feel. That’s a good thing, otherwise, we’re digging our own human grave with what we’re doing right now in the tech industry.

Let go back to rethinking the way we look at mental and chronic diseases. Like Shawn says himself, if you go to a therapist with one problem, he/she will make sure you leave with ten. That’s what their whole business model is about, isn’t it? The only way for physiatrists and therapists to exist, and even thrive in today's world is if they constantly have something to fix. As I stated earlier since psychology exists, the goal has been to cure the undefined ‘insanity’ in people and make them ‘better’ again, even though both those words having no real scientific body. If the better part of psychology has been to study the ‘sick’ and trying to get them to be ‘normal’ again, what is the business modal of the modern-day medicine world? What has the better part of the pharmaceutical world has been focused on, and are we still on the right track?

Doctor Rangan Chatterjee states that diseases like diabetes or depression are more symptoms than diseases

See, like depression, our society is in a collective loop of thinking backward about medicine. Like depression, it’s almost impossible to exit this look thinking. But as Dr. Chatterjee tells us in the video above, doctors that look at diseases as mere symptoms, asking themselves what is causing those symptoms (like dementia, diabetes, etc.) in a certain individual, are able to ‘reverse’ those symptoms and hence, cure the individual’s who have suffered them.

Like with positive psychology, which stopped looking at people’s brains as if everyone is sick and needs to be ‘fixed’, if the world of medicine focuses on studying healthy people and tries to understand what makes them healthy, they will be better suited to cure the ones lacking health.

One of the big questions here is: What made us look at illnesses the way we look at them today? To answer this question, we need to zoom out a bit.

The short (and very unreliable) human history of diseases

Humanity has known a long history of infectious diseases, caused by bacteria, microbes, microparasites, etc. Yes, distant human history is not that well documented, so there is a lot of speculation in what I’m saying, but in general, one of humanity's worst enemies has been all different types of living microorganisms, that are very infectious and contagious and fast-growing. They spread easily from one human to another and grow easily in the coziness and warmth of a human body that can provide them with everything they need to live a fulfilled parasite life. The Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people exactly a century ago, contaminating one-third of the world population.

The lack of hygiene did not help with fighting those ‘living’ deaths. Domesticating animals didn’t help either, it made it even easier for new infectious diseases to reach people, but we wanted bacon and burgers and no swine flu or mad cow disease would stop us from getting them. So with the rise of medicine and vaccines, at some point, humans became masters of getting rid of entire micro living things in people’s body, before those micro things could get rid of us. A lot of old infectious sicknesses are way less deadly now or already dead themselves.

That’s very good news, thank you, medicine, for doing this.

But the modern-day world is not suffering from high-paced infectious diseases anymore (well… there is that Covid-19 thingy going on, it’s a good reminder that we’re also not that good at taming (or preventing) living viruses, but besides that, I mean). Diabetes, cancer, heart and kidney disease, etc. are in growing numbers, expected to grow even more every year. Those are considered chronic diseases and are very difficult to treat. Especially because the origin of those diseases is very difficult to pinpoint and there are little to none micro living organisms involved in getting those chronic illnesses. Those diseases are not contagious, and not infectious, and have strange, not very well-understood roots.

And although modern-day diseases are not the same as infectious living microorganisms in your body, the approach to how we try to cure them hasn’t changed much. Thing is, the convenience of using antibiotics for infectious diseases might even be our end as humanity, but that’s a subject worth its own article. “Here are some pills that might help with that” is still a very common way to treat a mental disorder or cardiovascular disease. Meaning that we haven’t made much, if any, progress since the creating of the first pill on this front. Modern-day medicine can transplant a human organ into a different body, change the appearance of a person (their sex of one, but in general, plastic surgery is on the rise, like everything with plastic really.

Because of the chronic nature of these diseases (meaning that they are there to stay for very long periods, if not, till the end) getting people pills to help them fight an illness is often also a life-long practice. Once you’re in the pill system, escaping it would be merely impossible. Recent breakthroughs in how we look at medicine have proven, time after time, that everything is curable without any medicine, as long as one can get into the roots of what might have caused this diseases in the first place, on an individual level. The pharmacy world that creates all those pills are looking at it exactly opposite — how can we mash every organism into one and give it a type X medicine.

The more recent history and future of diseases

Thing is, communicable (infectious and parasitic diseases) are shrinking, while non-communicable (chronic) diseases are growing. This means that the medical world has understood how to treat infections way better than how to treat or cure cancer, diabetes, or heart problems. It’s not only that those non-commutable diseases are not well understood, but with trillions invested in fighting them, they’re still growing and taking more and more victims.

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Heart-related diseases, cancer, Alzheimer's & dementia, diabetes, and kidney diseases are growing, while infections are shrinking. Source — WHO

Seven out of 10 deadliest diseases are noninfectious and are growing with the minute. Even worse — life expectancy is starting to drop, we were successfully able to reverse evolution. There is such a clear trend between infectious illnesses disappearing and chronic diseases growing that no-one seems to address, I couldn’t help wonder if we’re looking at things through the wrong lens. But another thought planted itself in my brain and for some time now, I have been asking myself:

Is there a link between mental disorders and chronic/non-communicable diseases?

Is there!?

With my not-medical background but yes internet connection, I went on to find out. And this is what the Internet told me:

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “People with chronic medical conditions have a higher risk of depression” and also “People with depression have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease, for example”. Source

Mental Health America told me that there is a correlation between cancer and mental illnesses, that “rates of depression across the lifespan are 2 times greater for people with diabetes than in the general population”, “up to 40% of heart disease patients meet criteria for major depressive disorder

WebMD says that “many people with these [chronic] illnesses become depressed. In fact, depression is one of the most common complications of chronic illness. It’s estimated that up to one-third of the people with a serious medical condition have symptoms of depression”. Source — https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/chronic-illnesses-depression#1

Wait a minute……..

…..

…..

More depression means more chronic illness and more chronic illness means more depression!? Can you see the correlation? Can people escape it?

Are diabetes (type 2, at least), heart diseases, and cancer actually rooted more in the mind than in the body? Diabetes and obesity are modern-day problems that are often tied with eating too much or too unhealthy, right? Why are we eating too much or too unhealthy? Because of our brains. Because of mental processes like cravings that eventually drive us to unhealthy habits. Same with heart and kidney diseases, they originate in unhealthy lifestyle habits. What is making us doing unhealthy stuff as opposed to healthy things? Our brain.

See.. in recent years there have been documentaries like Crazywise that showed how to cure people of the incurable schizophrenia (with 10 days of silent meditation and NO pills), The Magic Pill that cured diabetes, autism in kids, and many more by just changing their diets (and NO pills), and documentaries about alternative healing treatments like Ayahuasca (The Song That Calls You Home, The Reality of Truth and many more) where two jungle plants are brewed into a drink that is said to cure cancer, diabetes, depression and basically ever non-commutable disease with NO pills.

The Reality of Truth trailer

I’m starting to see a pattern here, are you? The same way how psychologists make sure that when you arrive with one problem, you go away with ten (Shawn’s words, not mine), doctors have been too busy prescribing pills that might have worked on communicable infectious diseases like they used to work in the past, but haven’t put much effort into rethinking the world of medicine now. We are not majorly suffering from deadly plagues or small pox anymore. We are victims of our own minds. Apperently.

Psychiatrists and the big pharmacy corporations are seeing a rise in business like never before. An exponential growth of both mental and (incurable) physical sicknesses that just gets worse (or better from the perspective of the people cashing in, of course) every year. The medicine world is more advanced than ever, and yet, diseases, somehow, as well. The more trillions we spend on the medical world, the higher the mental and physical number of sick people. And all of this is happening in a loop, where it goes from mind to body or from body to mind. We’re mid-Covid pandemic, but also mid depression pandemic, loneliness pandemic, cancer-pandemic, cardiovascular diseases pandemic, and diabetes pandemic. I understand that big pharma just wants to cash billions and don’t care about people’s health, but if body healthy starts with the mind, and mental health starts with awareness and from within, shall we pause these extremely busy lives of ours for a bit and focus on our health?

Apparently, our health is in no-ones best interest, except our own.

So yes, the drive for progress and more and better is not a bad thing per se(this one if for the happiness critics), but the line between compulsion & endless consumption and contentment & happiness is not as thin as you might think. Science studies have found that a year after people win millions from the lottery and people that have become paraplegic (losing the ability to walk for instance) both groups turn out equally happy. I even dare to argue that winning the lottery hasn’t made anyone happier, ever, but I only have a gut feeling to base this thought on.

“To seek happiness is natural. But to look for it outside of ourselves, as though it is dependent on something in the future, is one sure way to never find it.”

Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder of the Headspace app and former Buddhist monk

“Most companies and schools follow a formula for success which is this — If I work harder, I will be more successful, and if I’m more successful then I would be happier. The problem is, it’s scientifically broken and backward for two reasons. First, every time your brain has success, you just change the goal of what ‘success’ looks like, and if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. The problem is that our brain works in a opposite order. If you raise the level of positivity in the present, your brain will perform significantly better than it does at negative, neutral, or stressed.”

Shawn Anchor, the dude that blew my mind

Happiness and all other positive emotions associated with it, is what scientists believe the gateway to better mental and psychical health. But in a world and economy that thrives into making you unhappy so that they can ‘cure’ us with either medicine, cosmetics, fashion and shoes, unhealthy ‘comfort’ food, social media addiction, etc. is very difficult to escape. We are led to believe that we need to put happiness somewhere in the near future and then try to get there at any cost. Which is fundamentally false and maybe one of the biggest lies capitalism has ever told us. This way of going through life, on ‘a journey to find happiness’ is the cause of all modern-day problems.

So here are the lessons I learned from positive psychology and the ancient Eastern wisdom on how to STAY happy, since being happy is the brain’s natural state of being.

Meditate

Recent years have showered us in research on the (almost magical) positive impact on the brain while meditating. I haven’t stumbled upon a study that disproves this. Here is a literal quote from The Happiness Advantage — “Studies show that in the minutes after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improves immune function.”

Here is how meditation rewires the ADHD brain to a ‘healthier’ brain without medication, how long-term meditation raises consciousness to unseen (by the Western science) superstates, and how meditation can not only make you healthier and happier but way more intelligent:

David Lynch on meditation

If you have ever given meditation a chance but didn’t stick with it (like me at 20, 22, and 25 years old) it might be because of this:

Commit conscious acts of kindness

Studies show that altruism — giving to friends and strangers– decreases stress and strongly contributes to better mental health.

Infuse positively into your surrounding

Our physical environment can have an enormous impact on our mindset and sense of well-being. Going for a walk in nature, surrounding yourself with more positive objects (like photos of loved ones, vacation memories, things that remind you of positivity), and watching less TV or spending less time on social media help enormously with boosting your positive vibes.

Side track — want to see what Bob Marley and dedicated yoga peeps mean with positive vibration? They mean more alpha waves, less gamma stress.

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Different brain patterns, most of us are in a constant Gamma waves, whereas long-term meditation is Alpha waves. Source

Spend money on experiences, not on stuff

The new Nikes are never going to make you as happy as visiting an interesting museum exhibition, or a place you’ve never seen before. A new smart speaker you can talk to is not going to make you as fulfilled as spending quality time with friends or family over drinks somewhere (someday, post-corona). Social media’s business model spins around personalized ads, meaning that the whole reason why you spend time on it, is because someone figured that the more time one spends in there, the bigger the chance of them to buy stuff that they have been targeted with. So less social media is actually a 3-in-1 win situation. Less distraction, less exposure to advertisements that tell you who to be happy (spoiler alert — by buying stuff, another spoiler alert: it’s not true), and more time for things way more fun than infinite scrolls and angry comment sections.

Exercise a signature strength

Everyone is good at something. Doing what you are good at and love to do gives your brain a boost in positivity as well.

Exercise physically

Exercise releases pleasure-inducing chemicals called endorphins, boosts positive moods, improves work performance, and many, many other big pluses that have been endlessly discussed everywhere so no need to mention how good exercise is for you, do I?

And next to meditation (which is more of a recent activity for me) my all-time favorite thing to do:

Keep a gratitude journal

Psychologist Robert Emmons, who has spent nearly his entire career studying gratitude, has found that few things in life are as integral to our well-being as gratitude is. I’ve had a gratitude journal for years, this one, and you might think that after being grateful for around 8 things every day, I would run out of things to be grateful for, but quite the contrary, the more I practice gratitude, the more things I find to be grateful for.

Final words of wisdom

It’s a bit funny, because I have been reading so much on psychology and understood nothing of the mind really. It took two Indians to actually change my whole perspective on life. It took one book and one talk and I was taken out of my low consciousness, reptile brain that thinks only about my comfort, pleasures, success measured in money, etc. to a higher consciousness with a perspective on life bigger than myself. Here is what the wisdom of the East (with Western science slowly but surely starting to catch up on this 40+ century’s old words) has to say on the physical diseases:

Physical sicknesses like cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, etc. are rooted in the mind. The disconnection between the mind and body to be a little more precise.
If one focuses more often on within, on the mind and the body energy (the opening of the chakras for one), while being consciously present, physical and mental health will follow. When you ignore your body too much, bad things happen.

Apparently, your mind is your body’s biggest healer, as long as you keep your mind healthy. See, that’s not God-talk that you need to either believe or don’t believe, it’s something that everyone can give a try. Give this 20 minute a day meditation a try and if after a month nothing happens, if you don’t feel mentally and physically better (even if you are already at your best), call me, I owe you an apology dinner for wasting your precious 20 minutes, otherwise spend on social media scrolling and ads spotting. I will owe you an apology then, so please let me know if a month of meditation feels like a complete waste. This article will be directly deleted then :)

Final final conclusion

My answer to the title of this article — Yes, we might be able to cure this world's biggest health crisis if we rethinking how we look at those diseases. Pills and liquid medicine might be great for infections, but apparently, a whole different approach (and an open mind to try less pharmaceutical alternatives) will be needed if we want to overcome the lurking death of stress, depression, and chronic illnesses.

Thank you!

Commentating on life & design. Also freelancing at both— siyanaivanova.nl.

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