Teresa, a fit and healthy mother of four, showed up at her spinning class with some bad news. Her forehead had broken out in blemishes and her muscles had turned soft after missing months of classes. Teresa wasn’t ill, but she was sick with worry over her sister, who lived across the country.
Her sister, who had begun chemotherapy for colorectal cancer nine months earlier, was due for her “last treatment,” but decided not go through with it.
“She’s giving up,” Teresa said, falling behind on the bicycle workout. Her sister is a single mom who had to move out of her house to be closer to their parents. No one in the family could convince her to make important lifestyle changes that would support her own healing, such as eating healthy, organic food, drinking more water, and getting some exercise and fresh air once in a while.
Teresa teared up when she said her sister was living in a motor home on her parents’ property. The ex-husband had taken custody of her sister’s two teenage children; before getting sick, being a mother was her mission. She used to enjoy her job working as a massage therapist, although had forgotten her purpose when her daughters grew older and became more independent. The divorce had taken its toll, and friends stopped checking in on her.
She had lived two blocks from the beach in Miami, but couldn’t remember the last time she had walked along the shore.
“The cancer is spreading to her colon. They think it’s everywhere,” Teresa said, and stopped pedaling completely.
“How about Gerson therapy?” Kate, an accountant, said, as a few classmates nodded that they had heard of someone else who recovered using this nutrition-based approach which has been used to treat cancer, arthritis, heart disease, and allergies since the 1930s.
“My daughter’s boyfriend’s aunt went to that clinic in Mexico after a heart attack,” another voice piped up in the conversation.
“Will she try CBD? It’s legal where she moved to in Illinois, right?” asked Eve, a realtor. (In Eve’s mind, every disease could be cured by medical marijuana.)
Across the room, our fearless instructor and Juice Plus+ dealer, Jill, thought about the dilemma and said dramatically over her mic, “Will she see a nutritionist or an integrative doctor? I know a great person in Chicago who …”
Teresa shook her head again, no. No, her sister won’t see an integrative doctor or nutritionist. That’s for A-listers, hippies, health nuts … the wealthy people who live in yoga pants and can call their life coaches on their cell.
We’ve all seen that look before. The look of a caring family member who can’t get through to a loved one. Whether it’s trying to get your mom to stop smoking, or your dad to stop calling Chick-fil-A “health food,” a change won’t happen unless they want it to.
Many people say that convincing loved ones to live a healthier lifestyle and fight for their life is difficult, especially when they believe their last doctor was the only person who could help them—the white coat who barely remembers their name—who enters the room late, after they’ve been waiting an hour and a half, and forgets their patient history every single time.
Loved ones hear every excuse in the book: it’s too late, it’s too hard, it’s too expensive.
But is it really too late to heal? What would Teresa’s sister need in order to survive a bleak prognosis?
When most people finish a Western medicine treatment that doesn’t work, they think “that’s it then.” They can’t afford alternative treatments that their insurance doesn’t cover and think it’s no use to change their lifestyle. They’re told they’re in the “final inning” and give up. They won’t even try the simple, inexpensive things our grandparents and generations before knew to work, things such as rest, healthy food, and a walk in the sunshine.
“All people who heal have at least one thing in common … the belief that they will heal,” said Dr. Henry Ealy, founder and executive director for the Energetic Health Institute. “Belief may be the most essential nutrient for any healing process.
“Effort and intention are wonderful and essential components for people endeavoring into natural healing. Still, effort and intention can seldom be fulfilled without knowledge and expertise.
“The word doctor means ‘to teach,’ thus a doctor is really a teacher, and that makes the patient a student. While experiences with doctors that fail to honor their oaths and basic aspects of the Patient Bill of Rights can be demoralizing, patients should never stop seeking the knowledge and expertise of a qualified doctor. The key is to look for people who care and treat you as they would a family member. … These are the doctors who exemplify what it means to be a healer.”
Some studies would suggest that Teresa’s sister can survive the cancer, but she would have to conjure up the desire to live. This means she’d have to change her mindset and her lifestyle, and if she were to find a new doctor or healer, it would be essential that they actually cared if she lived or died.
Here are 10 inexpensive and free ways to take control of your own health, starting with step one: finding the desire to live and believing that the body can heal itself.
Find the Will to Live
A 2018 paper published in Elsevier looks at the neuropathology of “give-up-itis,” the author’s term for extreme apathy that can lead to death despite lack of organic cause. It’s a state that can follow traumatic stress; mental defeat as a real pathology.
If giving up can be fatal, then the opposite is also true. Once someone decides they can heal on their own, they can research healing methods and therapeutics, including techniques of some of the world’s most prominent medical researchers and healers.
If Teresa’s sister searched online for ways to support her body in its fight against cancer, she would find dozens of mind/body therapies. Some cost money, but others are completely free. The key would be to keep an open mind. Sometimes, that means recognizing that scientists and doctors aren’t always right.
For example, it was a physiological maxim, repeated by scientists for decades, that you can’t heal a damaged brain or grow new neurons. Now, we know that just isn’t true. And while the power of the placebo effect is well-documented, people still undervalue the importance of their thoughts in disease recovery.
Wanting to live and expecting to heal are essential prerequisites to meaningful action that can reverse the course of a disease.
Avoid and Eliminate Toxins
When you begin to research how to heal your chronic illness, you may start to uncover culprits rarely spoken of in the hospital or doctor’s office.
Medical herbalist Brett Elliott describes these culprits succinctly on the blog Ultimate Herbal Health. In his words, which echo ideas from traditional medicine and many medical researchers, our chronic health conditions stem from six usual suspects: environmental pollution, pharmaceuticals, food, household chemicals, metabolic toxicity, and emotional stress. Therefore, in order to help their bodies heal, people need to stop putting toxins in their bodies and support their bodies’ detoxification functions.
Alcohol is probably the most accepted “poison” of our time, according to Olga Khazan in The Atlantic in January 2020. Khazan wrote, “Alcohol’s byproducts wreak havoc on the cells, raising the risk of liver disease, heart failure, dementia, seven types of cancer, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Just this month, researchers reported that the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States more than doubled in two decades, going up to 73,000 in 2017.”
According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a longitudinal study that followed 268 Harvard sophomores for more than 80 years, alcohol abuse was among the single greatest contributor to their early death, disease, and divorce.
Drinking alcohol, eating junk food, smothering your skin in chemicals, and binge-watching TV series or doom-scrolling on your phone for hours on end are just some of the ways you intoxicate your mind and body.
You need to press the reset button if you want to change.
Change How You Eat
Trying to talk a grown adult out of filling their grocery cart with cases of soda, frozen pizza, and microwave macaroni and cheese is as easy as getting a football fanatic to attend a book club instead of watching their favorite team.
Yet, dozens of international studies found that diet interventions and lifestyle changes can prevent chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
Dr. Steve Puckette of Puckette Integrative Healthcare writes on his website that when you’re sick, your body is vulnerable and your immune system needs support.
“I cannot stress enough how crucial a healthy diet is when addressing any health issue, even something as minute as a common cold,” Puckette writes.
“There is a saying that ‘food is medicine.’ If you ask what’s the one thing you can do for the rest of your life to ensure better health and vitality, the answer is eating right.”
The role of dehydration in chronic diseases is well documented. According to a review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, “acute systemic dehydration” may be a pathogenic factor in several diseases, including cystic fibrosis, and keeping hydrated helps with hypertension, heart disease, stroke, gallstone disease, glaucoma, and even broncho-pulmonary disorders such as exercise asthma.
Whether it’s bottled water or filtered water, it’s a scientific fact that water (pure water—not caloric drinks containing water) is important for every cell in the body to function properly.
According to an article by Liana Reiland, D.N.P., of the Mayo Clinic, water ensures proper digestion and prevents constipation.
“Water also helps flush toxins from the body, promotes good kidney function, keeps your joints and muscles lubricated, supports healthier and younger-looking skin, and helps regulate body temperature,” she writes, noting that the Mayo Clinic recommends 11.5 cups (92 ounces) for women and 15.5 cups (124 ounces) for men per day.
Some of the most popular apps today are mood trackers to improve mental health, symptom trackers for chronic illness, and fitness tracking to assist with workouts.
Studies have shown that journaling reduces stress, improves immune function, keeps the memory sharp, boosts mood, and strengthens emotional functions. Keeping a “healing journal” is an important way to take ownership of your health—and it also promotes self-efficacy.
According to a literature review published in Nursing Open, promoting self-efficacy in patients with chronic disease beyond traditional education increases treatment adherence and decreases costs and hospitalizations. The review cited a study that found that self-efficacy “enhances engagement in health-promoting activities and adherence to treatment regimens.”
There are currently more than 259,000 inexpensive health and lifestyle apps available for self-charting, including apps like Glucose Buddy, which monitors glucose levels and tracks carbohydrate intake for diabetes, and iLog Lyme for recording symptoms and treatments for Lyme disease.
For intractable seizures, and hard-to-treat epilepsy, many people are learning that certain food items, activities, and illnesses trigger seizures. These important revelations came about from keeping detailed daily diaries of seizure activity, diet, and activities. A simple spiral notebook can work just as well as an app.
Asking for Help and Building a Team
In a study on coping with chronic disease published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation in 2017, researchers found that people can overcome difficulties with chronic disease through acceptance and learning self-efficacy, as well as making boundaries and gaining insight into abilities and limitations. Another way to cope was being able to ask for help and support from others.
If you have never asked for help before, it can feel awkward. People will be surprised, nervous, or helpful depending on who you decide will be on your team. Studies show the power in asking for help. You can read up on articles that offer you a script.
An article called “Living with a chronic illness—reaching out to others” on MedlinePlus suggests that talking with people who have the same illness can be important, including in peer support groups. It also advises you to tell those around you that you have a chronic illness. And importantly, let your loved ones know that they can help you.
“Sometimes, all you need is someone to talk to,” the article says. Make sure to let your loved ones and friends know how they can help you.
“Calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that’s very important for good health,” the Dalai Lama said.
Sitting still may sound a little boring to some, but scientists have finally proven what monks have known for centuries: Meditation heals.
For example, a recent study in the Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine found meditation practices that elicit the relaxation response have been demonstrated to reduce blood pressure just as well as blood pressure medications.
Jane Fonda tried to warn us, Richard Simmons gave it a whirl, and newbies on Instagram are rubbing it in with pictures of their rock-hard abs: Your body needs exercise to stay well. Still, too many people with chronic illness decide to emulate bronze statues and floor lamps.
Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic disease, according to reams of research. Inactivity contributes significantly to chronic conditions such as metabolic syndrome, obesity, insulin resistance, liver disease, heart disease, cancer, and premature death.
Whether it’s stretching in the morning or walking the dog, the intention to move your body will serve you well as you heal. Add some of your favorite music to your exercise routine and raise your vibration even more, as studies show positive psychophysiological effects of music during exercise.
We all know that healing involves regular exercise. At least 30 minutes of physical activity per day, at least five days per week, is essential, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Get the Right Amount of Rest
“Sleep may be as important to health in old age as diet and exercise,” according to new evidence from the project Demography and Economics of Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. A review of numerous studies has shown that sleeping too much or too little is associated with mortality among older adults.
So what is the Goldilocks amount of sleep? A 2018 cross-sectional study on sleep and chronic diseases published in Sleep Science stated the value established for “long sleep” is nine hours. When you’re healing, you need a little more sleep than most people, and as your body recuperates, the next day can be filled with enjoyment.
Finding Enjoyment, Connection in the Human Experience
All of the above are important to heal, and the studies prove it. But the key to it all, especially in the isolating time of COVID-19, is making emotional connections to help you heal.
Dr. Wayne Jonas writes in Psychology Today, “When our encounter with another person results in connecting to our emotional self—especially to a part we have avoided dealing with because of fear or grief (emotions all too prevalent right now)—the healing can be profound.” Jonas said he’s read studies of patients with rheumatoid arthritis who report significant pain reduction after a single episode of sharing their traumatic experiences with their illness. “Patients with asthma have improved lung function—measured objectively with a spirometer—a month after a similar single sharing.”
Similarly, people face the challenge of enjoying life while living with long-term illness. What’s the point of healing when they can’t enjoy what they once enjoyed as leisure time?
According to a study by Julia McQuoid, Ph.D., titled “Finding joy in poor health: The leisure-scapes of chronic illness,” leisure should be accounted for and incorporated into illness management plans.
In other words, find something that gives you joy and make it a part of your healing journey, whether it’s spending more time holding your grandbaby or finding a local garden with a great bench, or walking barefoot along the beach or grass. Write yourself a prescription for it.
Is All of This Feasible?
A recent survey found that 61 percent of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck as of December 2021. A January 2022 survey found that less than 50 percent of Americans could afford a last-minute emergency. This leaves most people with only one option: They decide they will only participate in treatments covered by their insurance.
Many would be surprised to learn that alternative medicine can be affordable, but few take the steps to get an estimate. A study in BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies found that “out-of-pocket expenditures of over $34 billion per year in the U.S. are an apparent testament to a widely held belief that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies have benefits that outweigh their costs.”
Teresa said her sister’s Medicare was all she had.
“It’s the worst care,” but she can’t afford anything else, and she truly believed it was the safest path.
Teresa, her sister, and most of America are frightened of taking the path less traveled, and who could blame them? People hear anecdotal good news about vitamin C infusions, yoga, and complete diet overhauls, but no one goes to the doctor for a chronic condition and receives a prescription for any of those things.
Bestselling author Caroline Myss said in a TEDx talk, “Choice is the most powerful thing we’ve got going for us, and we know it. And that’s the reason why we’re terrified to make a choice.”
This is, perhaps, why people listen when their doctors say they have nothing left to offer and why they won’t get creative and seek out-of-the-box care.
Myss advises those facing failed treatments to take risks. Proof may not always be available in the form you would want, but the stories of other people who have faced similar diseases and recovered offer something even more important—hope.
Age-old wisdom about eating right, sleeping, and exercising outdoors is proven by lived human experience. You know yourself the power of a friendly face and sympathetic ear.
Healing is having a mission and knowing you matter. Fulfilling that mission takes courage, effort, and the decision to live in life-affirming ways.
If you have a loved one who isn’t convinced they can heal on their own, maybe you can offer a reason to believe in self-healing. One way you can do that is by telling them why they matter. Remind them why they are important to you. Help them discover the meaning of their life.
According to Rabbi Jacobson, founder of the Meaningful Life Center, “Just like a business cannot function without a mission statement, neither can you, neither can I, neither can anyone. What is your mission in life?”