How to Cultivate a Healing Mindset After a Cancer Diagnosis

Changing our thoughts on cancer brings us into a new sense of responsibility, empowerment
By Conan Milner
Conan Milner
Conan Milner
Conan Milner is a health reporter for the Epoch Times. He graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and is a member of the American Herbalist Guild.
May 7, 2021 Updated: May 7, 2021

Last year, COVID-19 deaths got all the attention. But we’ve lived for decades with a far deadlier killer: cancer.

In 2020, cancer claimed more than 600,000 lives in the United States. While that doesn’t reduce the seriousness of 350,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 nationwide, given cancer’s prominence as a COVID-19 comorbidity, it does warrant concern. For many years, cancer has been a leading cause of death around the world, and experts expect the annual cancer death toll to rise even more in the years ahead.

Our complex relationship with cancer goes beyond the death count. One aspect is the particular attitude we hold toward this disease.

Cancer seems to inspire warlike terms like no other disease. People routinely talk of their battles with cancer, and those who make their way to remission are known as survivors. In 1971, President Richard Nixon famously declared a “war on cancer” when he signed the National Cancer Act into law. The Act was a kind of retaliation toward cancer becoming the nation’s second-leading cause of death by 1970, just after heart disease.

Fifty years later, the war rages on. But despite all the money spent on research and treatment on the battlefield, cancer remains the second-leading cause of death nationwide. 

It’s no wonder that so many see cancer as an enemy. The metaphor speaks not only to the number of casualties from cancer, but also to the brutal side effects that characterize treatment of the disease.

However, war isn’t the only way to look at a cancer diagnosis. In fact, this warlike mindset may do more harm than good. According to author Brandon LaGreca, we can also view cancer as a powerful teacher, and a catalyst for change. In his new book, “Cancer, Stress, and Mindset: Focusing the Mind to Empower Healing and Resilience,” LaGreca shares research and insights born of his clinical practice as a Chinese medicine doctor and cancer survivor. In 2015, he was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and achieved full remission eight months later by following an integrative medicine protocol without the use of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery.

LaGreca offers patients a new perspective on the numerous challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis.

LaGreca doesn’t claim to have a cure. Nor does he urge patients away from conventional treatment, or their oncologist’s advice. Rather, he asks both patients and caregivers to spend some time looking beyond the battle, past the factors we can’t control, to a contemplation of the factors we can.

The Epoch Times talked to LaGreca about his book, and how something as simple as a change in perspective can help us heal.

Epoch Times Photo
Brandon LaGreca, author, Chinese medicine doctor, and cancer survivor

The Epoch Times: The conventional mindset is to view cancer as an enemy that we fight in battle. Does this mentality serve us in any way?

Brandon LaGreca: Not at all. We’re basically waging war on ourselves. Not very helpful in the long run.

It’s ironic, because of all the diseases we could possibly suffer from, we promote this war mentality with cancer. We’re not talking about an infection that really is truly externalized—something that goes into the body and invades it. We’re talking about our body’s own cells that, through some genetic mishap, develop into malignancy.

To me, adopting war terminology is a major misalignment of priorities in terms of how we have to think about and treat it. The main reason is that this particular mindset promotes the idea that this is something that is foreign to me, and because of that, I just need to:

  1. Cut it out (surgery),
  2. Burn it out (radiation), or
  3. Poison it out (chemotherapy).

With the exception of surgery, these things can have massive systemic side effects, which everyone is well aware of.

We can’t treat this in the conventional paradigm without having fairly massive collateral damage to our body. Cancer is simply our body’s own response to the environment. We encounter carcinogens. Those carcinogens cause mutations. Those mutations either localize into a tumor or spread and metastasize. But anyway you could possibly spin this, we’re still only dealing with our body’s response to the environment through the cancer formation process.

It doesn’t do anyone any favors to just cut, poison, and burn, and not take on the much larger and much more important mindset of what you can do to treat this holistically.

The Epoch Times: So how do we shift this ‘battle’ perspective on cancer?

Mr. LaGreca: The main obstacle for people adopting this mindset is they have to shift away from victim consciousness or victim mentality and into an empowered one.

I’ve noticed over the years that for a lot of patients that’s a really tough nut to crack, because they have to face a lot of their own demons when they do so.

Stress is very much a part of this thesis. Much of the book is devoted to the evidence of the connection between stress and cancer. It makes a case for a very common, yet still overlooked cause of cancer.

One of the reasons why stress has a connection to cancer is because oftentimes, we self-medicate for stress with very destructive habits. You don’t have to think any further than smoking and drinking, both of which are known carcinogens.

We have carcinogens that we have very personal relationships with that we are choosing to put into our body, because we have certain stresses or traumas that we’re self-medicating from. The only reason those are there in the first place is because of the history of that trauma and stress.

For us to go all the way back to the source of whatever that stress or trauma is, we have to confront very uncomfortable things. We have to uncover childhood trauma, or chronic stress that we can’t necessarily get out of. Maybe, it’s a job or a relationship. Whatever they are, it’s more difficult to face those things than to actually make that change.

There is also the notion that we need somebody else to fix us. Go back to the conventional paradigm where we see this as something external to us. We just need to cut, poison, or burn it out. All I need is someone to do that job for me. I don’t need to take any personal responsibility.

We’re doing the car mechanic thing. If our car is broken, we take it to someone else to fix it. If there’s a lump in my breast, I need to go to the oncologist and get it surgically removed. I’m done. I don’t have to do any personal stuff or any lifestyle changes. I don’t need to think about my diet or any of the other environmental factors.

My first book on EMF radiation is a great example. How many people are addicted to their devices? And how many people are willing to give them up even if they’ve had a brain cancer diagnosis that they were staring down? My assertion is that it’s probably very few. Even with mounting evidence that this might be a very key carcinogen for that particular kind of cancer, our addictions run deep. That’s one of the things that we’re up against.

The Epoch Times: The war paradigm is a popular one, but some patients do gravitate to a more holistic perspective. Why do you think people resonate with it?

Mr. LaGreca: Because those who are willing to accept it realize that they have a role in their own healing. There is great power with someone discovering their own agency within the process. It can light a fire within them so that they can then start making those changes.

There’s your own personal experience, and there’s also the experience of the people around you. A friend or family member will say, “This is something that helped with this side effect,” or “This has helped me sleep better through this process.”

It just takes a few stories, because we’re social creatures. Homo sapiens should be homo storyteller. It’s our nature. We’re a species that sits around the fire and shares information. We externalize our brains in some respects. And that’s how we get the best of what others have to learn from. We learn from each other. Doing that gives us a lot of good clarity about natural remedies, or states of mind.

They’re extremely effective, extremely helpful, and really move the needle in a positive way.

The Epoch Times: Our understanding of medicine is typically driven primarily by whatever the science says. But it sounds like personal stories of triumph and discovery hold a lot more weight than we might give them credit for.

Mr. LaGreca: Yeah, and here’s why: Science is really good at figuring out the average. That is what a trial is supposed to do. Any kind of clinical trial for any kind of intervention or drug is looking to see what the average response is, and to make it the most predictable and the most scalable for a broad group of people. That’s really different than individualized care.

This is not a criticism of science. We love that reductionist science is able to give us a baseline approach. But the true art of medicine is tweaking that for the individual patient’s needs, and making it personalized.

The Epoch Times: Could you talk about your personal journey with cancer? How did it change you, and what kind of insight does it lend you when you’re helping patients?

Mr. LaGreca: I was diagnosed in 2015 with stage 4 lymphoma, and when I heard the doctor say those words I had two colliding thoughts that went in my mind at the same time. One was just shock and disbelief. How could this possibly be? I thought, at that point, I was living the healthiest lifestyle that I could to the best of my awareness and knowledge. And I thought I was a paragon to my patients for eating healthy and exercising.

The second thought was that I could do this. I could figure this out. I knew what I needed to do.

For me, one of the main insights of getting through the process was to make the best out of the situation. Obviously, this is a cruddy hand to be dealt, but I decided to use this for a launch point with which to help other people.

I wasn’t thinking in that moment that I was going to write books or give talks. I just knew at the very least that I was going to be able to help patients through this process.

At any given time in my clinic, I always have a handful of cancer patients that come to see me because they’ve heard my story. When I talk to them, I can get right to the heart. I can ask questions and I don’t hold anything back. I ask them to give me all the mental and emotional things they’re thinking about. And I can completely and utterly empathize with them. I know that it’s awful. I know what it feels like. I still have dark days. I know what that despair feels like. I can walk that path with you.

So it really helps me relate to patients in a very deep way that maybe their own oncologist is unable to do. Everybody has been touched by cancer in some way, but because of my direct experience, I can really hear patients’ fears and respond to them in the moment. And that’s extremely helpful with something like this, which is so fear-driven.

The Epoch Times: I’ve heard several stories of people filled with fear when they hear their diagnosis for the first time. As a result, they rush into getting treatments that they later regret.

Mr. LaGreca: That happens far too often. I wish patients would just breathe. Get a second opinion. Take their time.

Obviously, there are some situations where you can have a very aggressive, fast-growing cancer, but in the overwhelming amount of cases, by the time they detect a malignancy, it’s probably been there for years, if not decades. It’s just slowly growing in the background. But when they hear that diagnosis, they just jump to conclusions and roll into treatment.

Even if the patient inevitably decides that this is what they want to do, I still think they need to take time to get their head in the game and to feel 100 percent about what they’re doing. That’s so key. That plays out clinically in so many different arenas, but specifically when it comes to cancer patients.

I’m not a judgmental practitioner. I’m not saying you should even do an integrative approach, even though that’s what I personally did. I say, “I will support you 100 percent no matter what you choose to do, but I want you to have your entire heart and mind behind it.” That’s more important than anything, because that’s a patient who is onboard. Their mindset is engaged and they’re ready to take on whatever it is.

Now, they can change their mind at any point, but I don’t want them waffling. I want them on board. When they’re leading with that, they’re going to have a better outcome, and I don’t care what therapy they ultimately decide on.

The Epoch Times: But what if your good intentions fall short? I’ve heard feelings of guilt among cancer patients who try to change their mindset and fail. It makes me wonder: Are we asking too much from a change in mindset? And what should we expect?

Mr. LaGreca: I don’t want to assign to mindset anything that it cannot do. But I would say that a person with a proper mindset makes very different decisions than someone who does not. To me, the gift of mindset is to make somebody engaged in the process.

This is the analogy I use with patients: It’s like we’re playing catch. I throw the ball to you, and you have a choice. You can be engaged, looking at where the ball is coming from and try to catch it. There’s no guarantee you’re going to catch it, but we’re much more likely to connect.

You can also be looking off in the distance somewhere and completely miss the ball.

What I want is that engaged person. I want someone who is on top of their own health choices and making better choices for themselves. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it gives you a lot better chance.

Mindset just gives someone the opportunity to make better decisions for themselves. Even if someone gets to the point in their treatment where they’re ultimately going to succumb to cancer, you still have the opportunity in that moment to practice forgiveness, or resign to your mortality and be okay with that. That’s still a choice. It’s a mindset. It’s something where you can choose to be comforted as opposed to approaching it with despair.

Wherever someone is in their journey, mindset has something it can offer.

The Epoch Times: The biggest lesson I got from your book is that the ultimate goal is to reflect on the body’s imbalances, and see what changes might be needed in order to rebalance. It made me realize that healing isn’t only the absence of symptoms, but learning through the process.

Mr. LaGreca: That’s the difference between healing and curing. Curing is stopping the disease process. Healing is becoming a stronger, more empowered person on the other side of it.

Healing is always an option. Even when you’re on your deathbed, you still have the opportunity to heal. In a perfect world, maybe healing and curing align. And maybe healing, through your own efforts and mindset, promotes or predisposes you to cure. But, to me, I think it’s a lost opportunity to adopt a cure and not realize the healing of mindset because there is no change.

If someone gets a breast cancer diagnosis and goes on with their unhealthy lifestyle, grief, despair, or anger in their life, they haven’t fundamentally become an empowered person.

Curing is important. We need drugs, medicine, and surgery, but we also need people who are alive and willing to be on this planet as the beautiful, inspired souls that they are.

Conan Milner
Conan Milner
Conan Milner is a health reporter for the Epoch Times. He graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and is a member of the American Herbalist Guild.