Smoking, Emotional Integrity, and Cancer

“Smoking no more causes cancer of the lung than being thrown into deep water causes drowning,” writes Gabor Maté, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside physician, addiction expert, and mind-body health guru, in his book When the Body Says No. “Smoking vastly increases the risk of cancer, not only of the lung but also of the bladder, the throat and other organs. But logic alone tells us it cannot, by itself, cause any of these malignancies… even if, in most cases, it might be a major and perhaps necessary contributing factor.”

No, I’m not a smoker, and no, I don’t think this absolves tobacco companies in any way. What is interesting to me here are the psychological factors involved, the mind-body connection. The scientific literature is now filled with studies that confirm stress to be a major contributing factor in pretty much all disease.

But life is stress, so how can we mitigate it, and exactly what kinds of stress are implicated here?

This is sensitive, because, being a cancer survivor myself, I definitely don’t want to be guilty of blaming the victim here. But cancer research has focused excessively on genetics (which play a very minor role in most cancers), and on unavoidable and isolated environmental carcinogens, and not enough on factors we have some control over.

That’s what I want to talk about right now: the risk factors we have some control over.

One study Maté cites in his discussion is a European one that found smokers had no incidence of lung cancer unless they also scored high in the emotional repression questionnaire.

So much for telling ourselves to suck it up and get on with it.

Why is emotional repression such a big risk? Cancer is most apt to occur in those with helplessness-prone personalities. And emotional repression, says Maté, is the first domino in the chain that leads to helplessness. It goes like this: emotional repression results in feelings of isolation because the true self is hidden, which inevitably results in feelings of loneliness, depression and helplessness. And to feel chronically helpless is of course to become truly helpless.

Note to self: the risks of not being true to myself, to what I think and feel and like, are greater than those that come with putting myself out there and risking judgment and disapproval. Emotional expression and integrity are essential to empowerment and to good health.

Thankfully, the traditional Western medical view of discrete mind and body is rapidly being discarded as archaic. Mind and body are inextricably interconnected. Though extremely unwieldy, the term psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology captures well the complexity of constant chemical communication between our thoughts, our nervous systems, our immune cells, and our endocrine glands.

The stress response can then clearly be triggered either psychologically or chemically, and it never hurts to avoid known carcinogens. But to worry about hidden ones everywhere is to cause more harm than it can possibly prevent—the most powerful psychic triggers of disease-inducing stress include uncertainty, lack of control, and feelings of being powerless to affect the course of our lives. A sense of control immediately rebalances and normalizes stress hormones.

In one experiment cited by Maté, where the relationships between female monkeys were manipulated, stress hormone production went up in animals forced to become subordinate, and down in those newly dominant. Stress hormones are interesting though. While chronically elevated stress hormones increase cancer risk, temporarily and sporadically elevated ones decrease it.

Final note to self (for today): avoid both chronic boredom and chronic stress, and remember to take a turn at asserting yourself.

Hugo, and Acceptance

In a dark empty theatre yesterday afternoon with our grand-daughter, we watched Hugo. On my mind at first consciousness this morning: Hugo. And more thoughts on acceptance.

First, her favorite line from the movie: “Right after my father died, I would come up here a lot. I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.” (Hugo)

She, our grand-daughter, will chase many possibilities and dreams and know many purposes, of that I’m pretty certain.

My favourite line: “I’m sorry, it’s broken.” (Hugo) “No it’s not. It worked perfectly!” (Georges Méliès)

Most things work imperfectly from the start, and nothing works perfectly forever, but that may not mean their value is diminished.

Acceptance is sitting down with it, whatever it is, holding its new shape in your lap, feeling its weight. It’s the quiet that comes when you stop railing against it, saying it isn’t so, trying to make deals. It is letting go of magical thinking, knowing that the universe is random, both wonderful and at times seemingly cruel.

Acceptance is sleeping well again, and having your new reality break through into consciousness every morning as surely as that sore shoulder does, or that clock radio, or the morning news. Acceptance is putting words to the truth that is the new normal: I will have to learn to walk again. Or: The shape of our family has changed forever. She will never run, or know romantic love, or bear children, or live without pain. I have failed. He’s gone from us, all of us, forever. We’ll never understand each other on this. She has been clear: I am not good for her. I will always be a source of sadness to her, him, them.

Whatever it is, the possible variations of changes that demand adjustment and acceptance are endless. In the end though, they all involve new muscle, new strength, and knowing that for the time being at least, the new normal may come with seemingly endless tears. But our desire for joy and laughter and beauty, if nourished, can float to the surface too, and sustain us through our tears, and help us know that something no longer functioning the way we expected may not in fact mean its value is diminished in any way.


In the middle of being stuck in sadness earlier this week, as is normal for me with loss of almost any kind—rotating through the first four stages of grief and unable or unwilling to reach acceptance—came potent cheer and healing in the form the loveliest 11-year-old I know.

“I missed you so much!” she grinned widely, hugging us both. And then, falling into step with me, she echoed her mom: “Your hair is so pretty, short like that,” and then “I’m so glad your treatment worked!” And “I love it here, I wish we could stay longer.”

She travels regularly with her father to world destinations infinitely more exciting than Alberta, and I’m honored.

At home, we get all caught up, and later, making plans for the morning and the shopping trip I’d promised, she announces that she has, via iPod app, acquainted herself with West Edmonton Mall and has her shopping list ready to go.

At the mall, we visit Abercrombie and Fitch, where she is strongly drawn to a number of overpriced items. She pulls out her iPod, calculates the sale price, and agrees to look elsewhere, somewhere where we might be able to buy several items for the price of one.

We shop, she has a giant Marble Slab ice cream, and we shop some more, until the rest of us are tired. She has settled on a number of sale items over the over-priced Abercrombie and Fitch ones she’d initially eyed, but still not found the red jeans she’s after. I offer to walk with her to one more store to check, but she tells me it’s okay; she can tell from the look on her mom’s face that she’s had enough; we can always try another time.

She is far beyond eleven years of age—thoughtful, socially skilled, caring, sensitive, unafraid and funny—but also in every way simply an utterly delightful child. Her mom, carrying the bulk of the job of ordinary everyday parenting, as single mothers do, must feel both lucky and proud; she has done well.

We had fun, and I think I may have reached acceptance in those other pockets of my life again, for now at least.

Guilt-free salt, coffee, cheese, and maybe even sugar?

Most of us not lucky enough to be effortlessly energetic, limber, svelte and strong spend more than a little time looking for solutions. We talk to our doctors and our naturopathic doctors, we read. We’re familiar with the cacophony of health advice out there: Exercise more, exercise less. Sleep more, sleep less. Load up on complex carbohydrates, avoid carbohydrates. Go vegetarian or vegan, go Paleo. Avoid fats, all kinds, or maybe just the saturated ones, or maybe just the vegetable oils. Or go nuts on them. Go raw only, go slow-cooked only. Or—and perhaps least helpful to some of us—eat according to the Canada Food Guide, which for me, low fat and high carb that it is, means choosing between weight gain or portions about the size of a teaspoon.

All I’ve ever been after is to feel good, have energy, and fit into my jeans from one year to the next. And I refuse to accept that it isn’t possible to identify the root of, and correct, faulty metabolism.

My newest rays of hope have come from a source with ideas so unusual—and material as much fun to read as a science textbook—that I’ve mostly shied away in the past: Ray Peat, the man behind the science that prompted Dr. John Lee’s now well-known writings on hormone balance.

He doesn’t actually give advice, just puts the science out there. But if food can be medicine, and his overview of the science reflects truth, some of what his work might suggest to correct my currently impaired metabolism is the following.

1)   Eat bone broth—for the gelatin and collagen. It offers up an amino acid profile high in glycine, which heals and boosts metabolism, and—bonus for me right now—also reduces stress hormones, improves mood, improves immune function, reduces inflammation, heals neurological damage, and protects against cancer. I’m after all of the above.

So far, so good. It’s easy to make, tastes good, and my doctor recommends it too. And for those not into making their own, there’s always commercial gelatin.

2)   Eat more of the tougher cuts of meat that need stewing—again, the amino acids found in foods prepared with the connective tissues, skin and bones balance out the ones found in the more commonly-eaten muscle meats, which are high in proteins that have an inflammatory, anti-thyroid and metabolism-slowing effect. No problem; I know how to make a decent stew.

3)   Use coconut oil, eggs, and cheese. Saturated fat and all. For the protein, and for the anti-inflammatory properties of saturated fat, among other things.

4)   Keep starchy foods to a minimum, and, except for olive oil, avoid vegetable oils completely. So far, still not all that outrageous, not since Gary Taubes brought us Good Calories, Bad Calories.

5)   Drink a little coffee, not too much, and only with food, or at least cream and sugar to keep the stress response down. Drink it for its mood-elevating, pro-liver and anti-oxidant properties, and myriad others too numerous to list here.

6)   Let your taste buds determine your salt intake—for it’s anti-stress properties, and the role it plays in regulating serotonin and stress hormones.

And here’s the best part—or, to the carb-sensitive weight-watcher, the most terrifying.

7)   Have fruit or sugar with your meals—to improve digestion, and to help with the conversion of thyroid hormones, which requires glucose. Oh, and to stimulate glucuronic acid, which helps clear estrogen out of the liver.

I really, really, really like the sound of this last one, and want the thyroid and estrogen-clearing benefits, but though I’ve always craved dessert, I’m skeptical, and would worry about the insulin increases. Too much insulin, I know, signals weight gain.

Plus, it’s simply heresy in our health conscious sugar-is-poison world.

There’s more, most of which is foreign and complicated and weird to me. But this part fits with a philosophy I’ve always embraced—balance. Yin and Yang. Good cooking should include salty, sour, bitter, savory, and sweet, so maybe, just maybe, Ray Peat, who seems to think sugar is medicine, is onto something.

Dare I?

Weekly Photo Challenge: Contrast

I hadn’t really thought about this when I took it, but it resonated with me somehow. Now, on a little thought, the contrast between the naked, strong white energy of the trees, and the calm blue vibration of the infinite, captures hope for me—dormant life reaching out to bridge the gap between what is, and what is possible.

Gut Feelings

Hope, they say, begins with our thoughts. But in actual fact, hope’s origins are much more primal and fundamental than that.

Keeping those bright spots of color in our experience involves more than willing them with positive thinking. Positive thinking, yes, but positive thought is born of and rooted in of something very biological.

Our minds influence the health of our bodies, but the reverse is equally true. Mind and body dance closely, almost as one, both leading, both following.

We now know that the neurons, neuro-transmitters and receptors found in the brain are also present in every single organ and system in our bodies. Our guts have more neurons than do our brains, and, for better or worse, they produce 95 percent of all the serotonin produced by our bodies.

This of course explains the findings of a growing body of research supporting the use of a probiotic diet to reduce stress and alleviate depression and anxiety and sleep disorders. Probiotic food is food that is alive, food that energetically supports life. Healthy gut flora produce stress-reducing B–vitamins, and set the stage in a million other ways for good health throughout the body. It can positively impact almost everything on the spectrum between the restless overactive brain and the lethargic hopeless one.

To borrow Scott Peck’s famous opening line, life is difficult. How well we digest what it delivers and keep hope alive is determined in large part on what we put into our bodies. Hope and positive thought and body-brain chemistry are inseparable.

I read Margaret Trudeau’s account of her bipolar illness in Changing my Mind last weekend, which, while in need of a slightly heavier editorial hand, was a compelling read. But the brightest spot for me was learning that at least one of the doctors involved in treating her illness understood the key role nutrition plays. We can’t deprive our bodies and brains of the microbes and fats and trace minerals that are the very essence of life, and still expect to feel and function well.


I love words. They’re essential, and they can be powerful. But the real magic of our lives, the spark of transformation and connection and revitalization, happens not primarily through words, but in how well our communications actually make it across the spaces between us. The power lies in the sensitivity and intuition of the receptor.

I have so much respect for those who have honed this gift of listening and intuition. The world is full of them, all kinds of people—young and old and in all kinds of roles, but often drawn to work as massage therapists, nurses, baby-holders, midwives, doctors, Benedictine Oblates, psychologists, acupuncturists, musicians, artists.

These people somehow, whether innately or by training or both, often have the ability to interpret accurately not only words, but also what the muscles beneath their hands are communicating, what the skin tone, the strength of the pulse, the eyes, the smile, the body movements, and the energy surrounding the other are telling them.

People who accurately intuit meaning against the backdrop of the other’s whole being—my massage therapist does this routinely even when my words are hiding the truth—these people get at what is in that moment necessary, and that’s where healing happens. There, and in gratitude.

The act of bringing our words and pain to another is therapeutic and necessary, but it is in the successful crossing of the spaces between us that the real power lies. It is when the eyes or ears or hands of another human being have registered and accurately interpreted our communications that we are left stronger, richer, happier, healthier.