Just as mental acuity is affected one way or the other by the condition of the blood and general fitness of the body, so too does the reverse apply--the physical status of health can be enormously influenced, for good or for bad, by mental attitude.

It is now fairly well understood how mental stress causes the release of hormones and fatty acids, etc into the bloodstream to cope with a potential "fight or flight" situation, but more complex is the interaction of mind and body involving the will to live, which although normally programmed for survival can in some circumstances be reversed, and either way can vary greatly in intensity. On one hand you have the case of someone beyond all hope of survival simply refusing to die, and fighting their way up again, and on the other hand you have someone in reasonable physical health but, miserable and with nothing to live for, who just sickens and dies. A better example of how negative thoughts can kill is the way Aboriginals who have broken tribal laws can be punished by the ritual of bone pointing, after which ritual the victim simply wastes away and dies.

The placebo effect of dummy medicines, well known in medical research circles, is put to good use by some doctors loath to inflict drugs upon their patients and who have discovered their patients do just as well taking dummy pills as they do taking real ones. The patients don't know the pills are dummies and the knowledgeable doctor knows in most cases that they will recover with or without medicine anyway, but that their belief in the "cure" will help them do so more quickly.

As mentioned earlier, the belief system can work both ways. It is the doctor's job to instil the belief in the patient because without the belief there can be no result, and if for some reason the patient believes that the "medicine" will produce a harmful result, then any effect produced will indeed be harmful. For instance if a patient takes a placebo in the belief it is a drug that produced a skin rash to them in the past, or perhaps nausea, then the chemically inert placebo is capable of reproducing these same symptoms.

At the World Health conference on Asian medicine in Canberra in 1979, a Tibetan woman doctor, Dr Losang Dolma, described how she achieved an eighty per cent success rate in treating cancer using precious stones ground up and made into pills. The director of the New South Wales Cancer Council was reluctant to comment at the time, saying it was a far-fetched notion but he was willing to learn. It is to be hoped that he did learn something, because if someone is to recover from any illness, especially cancer, their mental attitude is of paramount importance.

The entire history of medicine is a mixture of confusion and argument about what is scientific and what is quackery. Had Losang Dolma come from a Sydney suburb instead of Tibet, she would have long before been jailed as a cancer quack.

The many claims made over the years that various mixtures of herbs, roots, etc were effective cancer cures cannot be swept aside as unscientific because many of them achieved their purpose, according to the personal testimonies produced to support them. Homeopathy is a branch of alternative medicine based on potions containing ingredients in quantities so miniscule (sometimes in the order of a trillionth of a grain) that it seems absolutely impossible for the medicine to produce the slightest effect even on an insect. But homeopathy has many supporters, even from the ranks of medical doctors, the reason being that they have seen results beneficial to the patients so treated. Notwithstanding that herbs and so on could perhaps provide the patient's body with some nutrient it may have been lacking, it is as likely as not that the benefits when sometimes gained have been via mental pathways.

Some patients respond to treatments better than others, and it was Sir William Osler (1849-1919), the great British physician, who is quoted as saying: "It is more important to know what kind of patient has the disease than to know what kind of disease the patient has."

And well Sir William could have added: "It is more important what kind of doctor a patient has than what kind of medicine the doctor employs."

In his book Getting Well Again: The Bestselling Classic About the Simontons' Revolutionary Lifesaving Self- Awareness Techniques (1978), Dr Carl Simonton described dramatic remissions of cancer in patients he had taught to visualise the white cells of their immune systems as an army attacking their cancer cells and destroying them. Dr Simonton said: "You are more in charge of your life--and even the development and progress of a disease, such as cancer--than you may realize. You may actually, through a power within you, be able to decide whether you live or die."

Dr Harry A. Hoxsey, a cancer specialist from Dallas, Texas in the 1930s and 40s, said in his book You Don't Have to Die!: "Tell a victim he is hopeless (or let him discover it from his family) and the will to live becomes paralyzed. Show him a way out, strip him of fear and hysteria, give him even a forlorn hope, and the will to live is stimulated. It becomes a powerful ally in the battle against death."

The favorable influence of faith and positive thinking in influencing the body's metabolism to function better is called "faith healing", and if as a result of it homeostasis is restored sufficiently for the symptoms of disease to regress, it is sometimes claimed that a miracle cure has been performed when all that has happened is a natural physiological response to a favorable mental influence. The patient has not been "cured" at all, but merely assisted back to the right side of a borderline condition, hopefully to remain there. Of course, for the healing process to be fully accomplished the milieu interieur must be purified as well.

Norman Cousins, a veteran journalist and author, created a great deal of awareness in the medical profession about the power of the mind affecting the course of a disease with his book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient (Bantam, 1979), in which he described how he overcame a so-called "terminal" disease called "ankylosing spondylitis" by removing himself from hospital, declining medical treatment, and instead spending his time watching old comedy movies, meditating, resting, and taking megadoses of vitamin C. He was on his feet again in eight days and he was able soon afterwards to resume work and play tennis and golf again. That all happened in 1964, and so impressed were some of Cousin's influential doctor friends that he ended up lecturing on the mental aspect of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In December 1980, Cousins, then aged sixty-five, had an almost fatal heart attack and, declining medical advice for bypass surgery, he once again decided to make a recovery by natural healing assisted by his powerful positive mental approach, exercise and modified diet. In this he succeeded, as he described in his next book Healing Heart, Antidotes to Panic and Helplessness (1983). However, his triumph lasted only for ten years; his second heart attack was a fatal one.

Notwithstanding that misfortune, Cousins' claims about the immense value of positive, confident optimism in recovery from illness are absolutely correct, and his books are an inspiration to anybody, sick or well.

In Anatomy of an Illness Cousins tells of a meeting he had in Africa with Dr Albert Schweitzer, musician, physician and Nobel Prize winner. Replying to Cousins' question as to how the African tribal witchdoctors got such good results, Dr Schweitzer replied: "It's supposed to be a professional secret, but I'll tell you anyway. The witchdoctor succeeds for the same reason all the rest of us succeed. Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. They come to us not knowing the truth. We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides within each patient a chance to go to work." (Lesson 1 for all medical students.)

Cousins used this reference to the "doctor within" to illustrate his chapter devoted to the placebo effect--the power of the mind--and it was a good illustration, but it is doubtful that Dr Schweitzer intended people should think the power of the mind was the only consideration. Years before Schweitzer had made a complete recovery from diabetes, and his wife had made a complete recovery from tuberculosis' but this had only been possible when they had implemented the dietary advice given them by their friend, Dr Max Gerson (see Chapter 13 Cancer: Civilization's No. 2 Killer and "Improving on Pritikin" in Chapter 9). They had detoxified their bodies.

Norman Cousins did a good job beating the conventional medical odds, but he could have done better. If in addition to his mental self-conditioning he had adopted the Gerson diet, he could have completely reversed his coronary disease and still be alive today, perhaps to compare notes on physical fitness with Rolet de Castella (Chapter 16).