O. Carl Simonton was nominated by H.R.H. Princess Irene of the Netherlands for alternative methods in cancer research.
Carol Greenhouse | Jan/Feb 2009 issue
O. Carl Simonton is the son of a Baptist minister. By the age of 10, he says, he’d heard enough fire-and-brimstone sermons to think that when he died he’d go straight to hell. Today, the 67-year-old oncologist, founder and medical director of the Simonton Cancer Center, has shed those beliefs. But he’s convinced that how we think affects our well-being, and that our world view influences whether we’ll be among the roughly 40 percent of people who get cancer—and the 50 percent or so who survive.
Simonton trained as a cancer specialist at the University of Oregon Medical School in the 1960s, expecting to perform the only effective treatment known at the time: radiation therapy. But he found that studies were impeded by patients who didn’t follow through on their treatment plans because they believed they wouldn’t get well. He wondered why, in two patients with the same diagnosis and level of health, one might get better and the other worse.
Soon after, he stumbled on a story about business leaders using motivational psychology to change attitudes among corporate trainees. The key to success, according to this, lay in imagining you’d already achieved the desired outcome. So when Simonton started radiation treatment on a 61-year-old patient with advanced throat cancer, he decided to add some motivational psychology, relaxation techniques and mental imagery exercises. If our minds influence our immune systems, he reasoned, health outcomes might change if we revised our thoughts. He told the man to picture himself doing something he loved. The patient had been an avid fly-caster, so during treatment he envisioned himself fishing in a mountain stream. Within a month, no evidence of cancer remained. The man died of unrelated causes at 70.
The idea that there’s a correlation between thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and health outcomes isn’t new. Research has been going on since the 1950s. There is, however, still disagreement over whether there’s an effect at all. A 2004 review of 70 studies published in Clinical Psychology Review found that a relationship between psychological factors and the replication of cancer cells has yet to be proven.
But in the 1970s, Simonton and his then-wife, psychologist Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, released the results of their work with cancer patients that suggested a link. Of 159 patients, whose average life expectancy was 12 months, 63 lived at least two years, and 19 percent of those were cancer-free after a combination of radiation and Simonton’s imagery techniques. The tumors shrank in another 22 percent after the same treatment.
Simontons’ book, Getting Well Again, published in 1978, sold millions of copies, but generated a backlash. A few years later, the American Cancer Society said the scientific evidence didn’t show that imagery techniques affected cancer’s progression. “I went from having so much work that I was having to plan ways to deal with the demand to not enough to earn a living,” says Simonton. He responded by taking his techniques to audiences in Germany, Japan and elsewhere.
Simonton doesn’t believe negative thoughts cause cancer, or that cancer sufferers are to blame for their condition. Nor does he believe positive thinking is the only necessary treatment. He does believe that what and how we think can play an influential role in establishing and maintaining health. So according to him, changing patterns of thought can ease recovery, help alleviate the side effects of treatment and boost the immune system to make it better able to defend against illness and disease.
For Simonton, the message is simple: “Pay attention to your thoughts. Healthy thoughts bring us joy. Unhealthy thoughts bring unhappiness. When we think hopeful thoughts, we’re producing chemicals that impact the body at the cellular and molecular level and when we think unhealthy thoughts, we produce chemicals that can cause illness.”
“With his unique method, Carl Simonton improves both quality of life and death. He has an important influence on our thinking about cancer.” -H.R.H. Princess Irene of the Netherlands
— H.R.H Princess Irene, of the Netherlands