The train winds through lush countryside and crowded cities, like a finger tracing a vein, clogged with bleak tenements and abandoned factories and neighborhoods long out of control. If this land is our shared body, the cities are the vital organs, and they are largely uncared for, plagued by the waste and tension of modern life, unloved.

I’m on my way to the biggest — and for me the most enigmatic — of cities, New York, to attend Cancer Dialogue ’80, an historic gathering of physicians, scientists, and researchers brought together by the Omega Institute to shed light on the most frightening and puzzling disease of our time.

Why am I going? My father died of cancer six years ago and my mother has it today and, since the incidence of cancer is rising steadily, by the end of the century one out of every two Americans may die of it. That means half the people I love — my friends, my children, me. It’s a death without dignity — the body in revolt, grievously out of harmony, the song of life breaking into sour and random notes: anguished cries, muffled sobs, the uninspiring overture of the hospital ward at night, with its muted bells and labored breathing, and the softly padding feet of saviors bereft of miracles.

The majority of those who get cancer die of the disease, or its complications. In fact, some studies indicate that those who undergo surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy — the traditional treatments — are likely to die earlier than those who don’t. Peter Barry Chowka, writing in East West Journal, asks how it’s possible “for a respected multi-billion dollar health care industry in a technologically advanced civilization, enjoying major funding by the government, to operate so fraudulently.”

This is but one of the many “mysteries” surrounding cancer — some of them bogus, no more mysterious than greed and bureaucratic self-interest, others arising from the nature of life itself, especially that life we call civilized.

On the train, I have time to read, and think.

There is the sorrow of numbers: almost unknown one hundred years ago, cancer is now an epidemic. Since 1930, the cancer death rate has increased at least one per cent a year; one in four Americans will get it in their lifetime; 400,000 Americans will die of it this year.

There are the melancholy politics: more people make a living from cancer than die from it. The expensive orthodox therapies are a huge business, with a tangled root network of private interests, government grants, professional reputations. Take the American Cancer Society, which Chowka, who has researched the subject extensively, describes as “a bloated, corrupt, self-perpetuating public relations machine that may be as dangerous as the disease it is pledged to eradicate — an organization, in the words of Ralph Moss, Ph.D., who often dealt with the ACS as assistant director for public affairs of Sloan Kettering Institute, ‘which has nothing to sell except image and ideology, and no reward for anyone who contributes.’ ” The richest private charity in the world, with a yearly budget of $150 million, the American Cancer Society helps sell the government’s ten-year-old “War on Cancer” with slick advertising that ignores — except for the cautions about smoking and excessive sunlight — considerable existing knowledge about how we can avoid cancer. On such matters as environmental carcinogens, nutrition, stress, and so forth the American Cancer Society is virtually silent.

There is the old but compelling illusion: “a cure,” focusing on the microscopic cellular transformation which accompanies cancer, thus reinforcing the traditional impulse to treat the symptom of the disease rather than the causes. Norman Mailer wrote years ago that it is the “desire of science to be able to find the cause of cancer in some virus: a virus — you may count on it — which will be without metaphor. You see, that will then be equal to saying that the heart of the disease of all diseases is empty of meaning, that cancer is caused by a specific virus which has no character or quality, and is in fact void of philosophy. . . . All those who are there to claim that disease and death are void of meaning are there to benefit from such a virus, for next they can move on to say that life is absurd.”

I look at my own beliefs about health like a passing landscape: the tall trees of certainty, the underbrush of fear. I’ve been learning how I translate my expectations into physical form, and to what extent my body is a unique living mirror that reflects my assumptions about the world back to me. The description of the conference as “multi-dimensional” is appealing, because I see myself as a wondrous amalgam of flesh, psyche and spirit — political and private, perfect and groping towards perfection, the levels intertwined beyond imagining.

I remember Aldous Huxley’s eloquent description of cancer as a disease of the spirit, in which the body’s organs assert their “partial selfhood in a kind of declaration of independence from the organism as a whole . . . in exactly the same way the human individual asserts his own partial selfhood and his separateness from his neighbors, from Nature, and from God, with disastrous consequences.”

I remember Aldous Huxley died of cancer.

The conference runs from October 16-19 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, on Park Avenue and 42nd Street. It’s the old Regency Hotel, ostentatiously revamped with mirrored glass on the outside and a waterfall in the lobby. There are huge potted plants everywhere that receive little or no sunlight; when they turn brown, they’re removed by a plant leasing service, which replaces them with healthy plants. “This isn’t New York,” a friend, who’s a lover of the city, complains. Straining for elegance (eggs and bacon, $6.50), unanchored in time or place, the Grand Hyatt seems an odd setting for this forum.

The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, in New Lebanon, New York, offers seminars on health, medicine, philosophy, and the arts. It’s affiliated with the Sufi Order in the West — the esoteric Moslem sect headed by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, who will speak at the conference, and whom I’m eager to meet.

The impressive roster also includes two Nobel Prize winners — Drs. Linus Pauling and Albert Szent-Gyorgi — along with experts in surgery, immunotherapy, psychology, metabology, chemotherapy, nutrition, and radiation therapy. The conference is designed to bring together traditional researchers and less orthodox healers, to create communication among scientists whose common cause is the battle against cancer, but who are sadly estranged from one another. Yet even before it begins, Cancer Dialogue ’80 is mired in controversy.

At the last minute, nine researchers drop out, claiming they were misled about the nature of the symposium, and persuaded to participate because of the names dropped — mostly each others’ — by a conference coordinator. When they saw the final list of 27 speakers, they said, they were concerned their presence would lend credibility to methods they didn’t accept.

Thousands have turned away from traditional medicine to seek alternative answers. . . .

— Dr. Arif S. Rechtschaffen

But Dr. Arif S. Rechtschaffen, the director of the Omega Institute, calls this nonsense. Most of the withdrawals did not occur until four to six weeks after the speakers had received a copy of the entire program. The reason they pulled out, he says, is pressure from the American Cancer Society.

Dr. Rechtschaffen, a 32-year-old family physician, suggests “the loser will be the medical profession, whose trustworthy image will continue to erode. Today, thousands have turned away from traditional medicine to seek alternative answers without clear discrimination between meritorious approaches and pure quackery. Better we give adequate consideration to new approaches within a dispassionate scientific framework than to add accusations and opinionated biases.”

The first speaker on Thursday has the crisp manner of an English officer, the zeal of an impassioned missionary, and a simple message: that we are, literally, full of shit. And we’re getting sick, and dying, because of it.

Dr. Denis Burkitt worked for nearly 20 years as a surgeon in a teaching hospital in East Africa and for the past 10 of those years has collected material about disease from all around the world.

Whenever you point a finger at someone else, remember there are three fingers pointing back at you.

— Dr. Denis Burkitt

He found that many Western diseases, including several forms of cancer, are rare or virtually unknown among peoples still following traditional ways. There is also little evidence of these diseases in the West before the twentieth century.

Many differences in lifestyle could account for this, Dr. Burkitt says, but strong evidence points to diet as a predominant cause. The most harmful change in Western diets over the past century, he continues, is the replacement of carbohydrate foods, such as bread and other cereals, by fat — animal fat in particular. Further, carbohydrate foods which were previously eaten with their natural fibre content intact are now eaten largely depleted of fibre. This is especially true of sugar and white flour.

What does this mean? That we’re the most constipated people on Earth; we pass one-fourth the volume of stool of the rest of the world’s population. Fibre plays a vital role in the digestive process; a significantly higher intake of fibre-rich cereal foods could almost abolish the problem of constipation which is nearly universal in the West and significantly reduce the prevalence of bowel cancer, coronary heart disease, diabetes, appendicitis, and other maladies.

Dr. Burkitt — who is probably single-handedly responsible for the recent bran craze — said in a recently published interview that if he hadn’t become known for his discovery of a rare form of cancer, now called Burkitt’s lymphoma, he would be considered another “quack.”


But his statistics are compelling, as is his imagery — “double the size of the stool instead of the size of the hospital.” One observation in particular strikes me as important: though life expectancy in Western countries is much greater today than it was a century ago, this is more the result of clean water, improved sewerage, better nutrition, and other public health measures than of therapeutic medicine. Although infant mortality has fallen enormously during the past century, life expectancy in middle age has scarcely increased. And this is largely because relatively new diseases — including cancer — have taken the place of infectious diseases as a major cause of death.

His parting injunction is that though everyone is quick to blame the government, or the food industry, or the medical establishment for what ails us, “whenever you point a finger at someone else, remember there are three fingers pointing back at you.”

I don’t sit through all of the second presentation; neither do many others. Dr. Werner Loewenstein, chairman of the department of physiology and biophysics at the University of Miami’s School of Medicine, clearly knows his subject — “Intercellular Communication and Cancer” — but his talk illustrates the very gap the conference was intended to close; it is unnecessarily technical, addressed to other scientists, dull. If there is something in these words about how the body maintains itself with the most extraordinary energy and vitality, how stimuli are carried and translated from cell to cell as part of an awesome juggling act in which imbalances are automatically righted, I don’t hear it. There’s no ambiguity here, no metaphorical bridge between the laboratory and the imagination.

I take a walk. I was born and grew up in this city, and it’s home, and it’s totally implausible, street after street like the crashing surf of consciousness — an old dream come to life, beyond interpretation. On 42nd Street, a rubbery-faced man with a stubble of beard, smoking a cigarette, falls into step beside me. “Hi champ,” he says. “Here we are. I think so. I really do. Honestly and sincerely.” Then he disappears.

Cancer therapy which emphasizes the relationship between the mind and the body is explored by two speakers who have been involved with this work for years — Hans Selye, M.D., Ph.D. and Lawrence LeShan, Ph.D.

LeShan, a psychologist and the author of You Can Fight for Your Life, has since the 1950’s worked with terminal cancer patients, many of whom have had total remission of the disease. The typical picture that’s emerged in the life histories of his patients is of a childhood marked by feelings of isolation and neglect; the formation in early adulthood of a relationship or role of paramount importance; then, because of death or retirement or moving away, a radical change in life situation — and resultant despair, which is bottled up. These are people unable to let others know when they’re angry. They cover up their feelings and wait to die.

“What’s important is what gives a central meaning to life,” he says. “If this is lost, and if people have a genetic predisposition to cancer, combined with environmental factors, they’ll get it.”

In doing psychotherapy with cancer patients, LeShan says, “Instead of the traditional question, ‘what’s wrong?’ we need to ask, ‘What’s right?’ What is the special song they need to sing? The body’s self-healing powers come to our aid when we’re singing our own song.”

Hans Selye, a physician now living in Canada, did some of the earliest work linking stress and illness at the University of Prague in the 1920’s. Recent studies have supported his findings that chronic stress suppresses the immune system, which is responsible for destroying cancerous cells. The physical conditions that Selye says are produced by stress match those under which an abnormal cell could reproduce and spread into a malignancy.

Selye is 73. Seven years ago he was diagnosed as having cancer, and was given one year to live. He says of his cancer, “I give it the disdain it deserves.”

Stress isn’t necessarily bad for you, Selye says. The manner of handling it can be more important than actually reducing it. “Find your own stress level,” he urges. “Fight for your highest attainable aim, but do not put up resistance in vain.” Frail, barely able to make himself heard, he urges on us an “altruistic egoism,” reminding us that selfishness and selflessness are not mutually exclusive, and that “you’re better off working for usefulness and love.” This is the first acknowledgement all day of the power of that most mysterious healer.

At the panel discussion, Dr. Burkitt questions LeShan’s assumptions about the mind-body connection. Based on his own research on diet, he says, he can’t understand how “different psychological attitudes” can explain the “enormous differences in who gets cancer in different parts of the world.”

“I think you’re completely wrong,” LeShan shoots back.

Dr. Burkitt also suggests that once there’s a diagnosis of cancer, “eliminating the cause isn’t going to help.” LeShan again disagrees, and insists that working with a patient to instill meaning in his life “will help.”

In the evening, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan declares that we “can’t compartmentalize the spiritual level” from the other factors, but adds that our “circumstances are not as they appear; our self-image is not our real personality,” and we must “dissolve the line of demarcation between the self and the universe.” That makes perfect sense but, surprisingly, I can’t follow much of his talk. It is laced with medical references — some of which he has difficulty pronouncing — and seems unnecessarily dense and cerebral. Maybe I’m just tired — although others around me seem to be having the same difficulty with the address, and the stilted presentation. It’s as if he’s trying to impress the scientists in the room with his grasp of biology, rather than reaching into his own depths, to create a bridge between the disparate elements here.

An interview with him has been arranged [“An Interview with Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan”]. I’d expected we’d be alone, but about a dozen followers sit nearby. They remain respectfully silent, except when he cracks a joke, and then they laugh too hard. He says he’s concerned about “the style of the magazine,” and whether THE SUN encourages the use of drugs; if so, he doesn’t want to do the interview. I assure him we don’t. Then he asks if it’s a “new age” magazine — a term I later discover he associates with “the drug scene of the 60’s.” I tell him I don’t especially like the label, but as shorthand, yes. He says he’d like to see an issue. As he leafs through it, I wonder why, if he’s as intuitive as he claims, he’s playing this game. I feel objectified, turned into a “press person,” an outsider.

On Friday, Stephanie Matthews-Simonton delivers what for me is the most thoughtful talk so far. [Excerpts from the talk: “On the Mind and Cancer” and “An Interview with Stephanie Matthews-Simonton.”] She and her husband, Dr. O. Carl Simonton, have built on the earlier work of LeShan, Dr. Selye and others, and at their world-famous treatment center in Fort Worth, Texas focus on the ability of their patients to help themselves get well — through learning a positive attitude, relaxation, visualization, goal-setting, managing pain, exercising, and building an emotional support system.

I’ve heard it said that the therapy is only as good as the therapist, and I suspect Stephanie Matthews-Simonton is very good. By honoring scientific method, indicating that their techniques don’t replace standard medical procedures but are used in conjunction with them (her husband is a radiation oncologist) they are able to span the worlds of tradition-bound science and the boundless realm of personal creative power. Everything she says is consistent with my own conviction that we create our own reality, at a level deeper than ordinary waking consciousness suggests, and that our circumstances, whatever they are — including cancer — are not thrust upon us, but are a picture of our beliefs. We can change our experience, as we change our beliefs. This isn’t just a matter of “positive thinking”; it requires work — sorting through our ideas about reality, accepting only those we choose to accept. Why not accept that the self is not limited, that there are no boundaries or separations of the self, that we make our own reality?

More on diet from Dr. Dwight McKee, the medical director of the Nutrition Academy, a group of doctors who work with the Kelley Program of Individualized Nutrition.

The single strongest factor opposing recovery is the widespread belief that cancer is incurable.

— Dr. Dwight McKee

The Kelley Program — this is the much headlined regimen actor Steve McQueen is following — involves both diet and supplements of enzymes, minerals, and vitamins tailored to body types. Peg Staley, whose letters about her struggle against cancer appeared in THE SUN last year, tried the Kelley program, too, and in her last letter before her death wrote, “There are many people who have healed themselves through following this program, just as there are those I know who have been healed through faith, through using wheat grass, various herb teas, as well as chemotherapy and radiation. I know that all these healings have taken place. I still have not found the route to my own health.”

The detoxification and cleansing program is based on the work of Dr. William D. Kelley, who, in One Answer to Cancer, published in 1968, said that 83 per cent of cancer in the United States involved dietary causes.

McKee says that since there are ten metabolic types, some do best on a vegetarian diet, others on animal protein, and so on. I’m delighted — that there’s no “right” diet, no single cure. He also suggests that “every cancer therapist attracts different kinds of cancer patients” — which may account for the seeming contradictions in therapies and results — and that “the best of us, on inhaling plutonium, will exhibit a high incidence of lung cancer, no matter what our spiritual and psychological and nutritional well-being.”

This is, in fact, one of the few references so far to environmental pollution. The conference seems strangely apolitical in this regard; no one has referred to the enormous and growing list of carcinogens in the environment: pesticides, solvents, plastics, air pollutants, cigarette smoke, contaminants in our water and food, and, of course, radioactivity. I wonder how we can be truly “wholistic” without taking on, as an intimate concern, the health of the planet-body.

“There are so many different pieces of the puzzle,” says McKee. “If we could drop our ego involvement and communicate with each other, we’d more quickly move towards an understanding of cancer and degenerative disease in general.”

“The single strongest factor opposing recovery is the widespread belief that cancer is incurable,” he says, and suggests that we “expand our beliefs and widen our ability to understand that there are no limitations to our beings.”

The afternoon panel brings together Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, Lawrence LeShan, and Michael Murphy, the medical director of St. Peter’s Hospice in Albany, New York. Murphy, who grew up in England, is a good-looking, charismatic maverick. He steals the show.

“Cancer is a metaphor,” he says. “It’s no accident there’s so much interest in it. It’s violent, it attacks the human being, and these are violent times. The psychodynamics of the group are no different from the psychodynamics of the individual, because we’re all interconnected and it’s just a matter of scale. If we look at what happened to us in the Vietnam War, it’s fascinating. To rid ourselves of the cancer of communism we attacked, we defoliated, we killed the good cells too, the women and children, we violated people, left them in ruins. That is our approach to ridding ourselves of cancer. We radiate, we attack the cancer cell — which is a weak cell, an unfortunate creature that can’t communicate with other cells. We attack and destroy it, and many other things too. The individual with cancer also can’t communicate with his neighbors about his needs and desires. So this attack method of treatment is missing the point. Of course, we need to take aggressive measures when necessary. But let’s look at what cancer means. Let’s not always use traditional methods, sending in the army and killing it.”

When he smiles, Linus Pauling looks a little like a circus clown. He has a gentle face and brilliantly alive eyes. Having become something of a household name because of his espousal of Vitamin C as a natural preventative — first, for the common cold, and later, for cancer — he is, seemingly, a walking advertisement for its efficacy.

There has been, during the last 25 years, essentially no decrease in the incidence of cancer. . . .

— Dr. Linus Pauling

Pauling, who won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, has put years of research into Vitamin C. He’s suggested — and to many minds demonstrated — that not only does Vitamin C improve health generally, but it is particularly effective in stimulating the body’s natural protective mechanisms in fighting cancer.

“Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on cancer research,” Pauling says, “there has been, during the last 25 years, essentially no decrease in the incidence of cancer or increase in the average time of survival after the patient is diagnosed as having cancer. There is now a real possibility that both the incidence and the average survival time can be significantly improved by use of Vitamin C.”

The value of Vitamin C was demonstrated, Pauling says, by the results of a study of 100 patients with “untreatable” cancer who received 10 grams of Vitamin C a day, in comparison with 1000 controls who had also been pronounced untreatable and who did not receive the treatment. On the average, the patients who received Vitamin C survived 10 months longer than their matched controls. Twenty-two of them (22%) lived longer than a year after having been deemed to have been terminal, whereas only 4 of the 1000 controls (0.4%) lived that long.

“Ten grams a day of Vitamin C is good for you no matter what ails you,” Pauling says. He’s asked to comment on reports that the body can absorb only so much Vitamin C. “You lose only 15 per cent of that 10 grams a day, in the urine. And that amount protects the bladder.”

Michael Murphy’s Saturday workshop is on Art, Science, the Imagination, and Cancer. Here’s some of what he has to say:

“I suppose medicine is a science. Medicine used to be an art. What is the difference between art and science? Science describes how things work, and art describes the human condition, how people feel and behave. When I went to medical school we vaguely thought medicine was an art. There wasn’t much science; people didn’t have too many scientific tools. The doctor used to go into the country to make home visits. I have no idea how medicine can possibly be done without home visits. I don’t understand the office visit mentality. When you go into someone’s home, you see the man who is sick, you see the wife, the kids, and the surroundings. The art of medicine was that the physician knew his patient, knew the family, knew the context from which the patient came, and then laid on hands, mumbled a few things and gave some colorful and hopefully foul-tasting medication. The person got well. That was an art.”

The grand old man here is Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgi. He discovered Vitamin C more than 40 years ago, and won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for this accomplishment. His most recent research focuses on the electron, and he suggests that the solution to cancer lies at this most fundamental level of life.

We don’t know what life is. We must understand that before we can understand cancer.

— Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgi

“You can’t control what you can’t understand,” he says. “We don’t know what life is. We must understand that before we can understand cancer.”

At 87, Dr. Szent-Gyorgi has one of the most interesting faces and interesting minds at the conference. (When I got up close to take his picture, he said, “I envy you your beard. I had one when I had to hide from Hitler. Then I had a long beard.”)

“Present biology,” he says, “is a molecular biology, which has stopped at the molecular level. The reason is evident. Molecules have the qualities of the matter we know from everyday life. A sugar molecule has the same qualities as the piece of sugar on our dining table. But if we go one step further and decompose the sugar molecule into its elements, then we are left with electrons and atomic nuclei, and we enter into a new, mysterious submolecular world into which science penetrated but recently.

“This world has its very own queer looking rules which can be expressed only in the language of mathematics. It is a special science called quantum mechanics or wave mechanics which deals with these rules. This science being a very young one, most of the present leaders of science are not acquainted with it, and it is no more than human that we distrust, oppose, and try to avoid what we don’t understand.

“So present biology stops at the molecular level, but there is no reason for nature to stop there and avoid using the subtle reactions of the submolecular level in shaping the wonderful thing we call life. I am experimenting at this level hoping to help in the solution of cancer. It is a rule that new ideas are always opposed.”

Dr. Szent-Gyorgi formed his own National Foundation for Cancer Research to carry on this work because he’s been unable to get any funding. “If the word electron was in the grant application,” he says, “it was immediately rejected.”

There are other speakers — Dr. Lawrence Burton, ostracized in the U.S., who has set up research facilities in Grand Bahama Island to explore the body’s cancer-resisting immune mechanisms; Harold Manner, discussing the implications of laetrile research; Dr. Arthur Davis, of the Zion Hospital in Zion, Illinois, an unusual medical institution which integrates into its standard cancer treatment program cleansing and detoxification programs as well as measures to stimulate the immune system; Dr. Norman Shealy, whose pain and rehabilitation center in La Crosse, Wisconsin reports impressive results with “unbearable” pain sufferers and others with chronic ailments.

A final note: on my way to the train station, the cab driver can’t understand how I can possibly write about cancer.

“You’re not a doctor, are you?”

“No, I told you, a journalist.”

“How do you know how to spell the words?”

“I look them up.”

“You must have to look up half of them.”

Maybe “cancer” is the sum of all those times we stop the world for the wrong reasons. . . .

He’s right, of course, I can’t write about it. Just around and around it. There’s no it, certainly no cure for it — any more than there’s a cure for life, or a need for one. Maybe “cancer” is the sum of all those times we stop the world for the wrong reasons, turning into objects and events what is seamless and undefinable. Instead of nameless joy we have a name for sorrow.