Anna Donald: Mind and body

Thank you again to people sending such encouraging comments. I can’t tell you how uplifting it is to wake up to such lovely responses.

A few people have asked me to explain why I wrote that having cancer is “fascinating, humbling, and maddening.” So I’ll try to oblige. Not all in one blog.

Having life-threatening disease is fascinating because it plunges you into a new existential world. It feels as if you’ve been forcefully pushed into the engine room of human existence where you start to understand, before you die, what you’re made of. Physically, mentally and spiritually.

For me, this is rather exciting. The reason I did medicine was my much earlier interest in how the mind worked within, or alongside the body. A child of the 1980s, reading the likes of Fritjof Capra and being a maths-physics geek to boot, I nearly did theoretical physics to see if it held any insights into how human energy worked and therefore how we continuously arise as a whole unit (not as a mind vs a body). I quickly realised that studying quarks and the like might lead me a tad too far from the human frame, so I did medicine instead. At least then I was working directly with the subject matter of interest, albeit firmly framed by clunky old Newtonian physics.

From my early teens, I drove my poor friends bananas making them listen to my endless theories about how the mind and body worked together, or were perhaps one thing, or perhaps not. (Nothing’s changed; I don’t know why they all keep visiting me.) Which is why I was interested, at 22, in doing things like Vipassana meditation (see previous blog) which enable you to explore directly the mind-body continuum and see for yourself, as an observer, what it comprises.

I thought Descartes was not quite on the money – cogito, ergo sum – because it should have been “I think-feel, therefore I am.” There are no such things as thoughts isolated from feelings (try Vipassana if you don’t believe me – it becomes blatantly obvious that every thought is accompanied by physical sensations; they always arise together).

In any case, when I got caught up in evidology (EBM) I sadly put these questions aside, although not before spending a couple of years as a lecturer for Sir Michael Marmot at UCL, whose enormous Whitehall study of civil servants reveals how the mind and body are intimately entwined (more successfully than Flanders and Swann’s right-handed Honeysuckle and left-handed Bindweed – sorry, old joke). The Whitehall study (along with many other, less spectacular studies) finds a very strong, linear relationship between social position and morbidity and mortality, which is not explained by controlling for lifestyle factors like drinking, smoking and diet. In other words, you get sick according to how you perceive the world. It is an intuitive, yet riveting finding in a very well conducted study.

But, wanting to be socially useful and not wanting to ignore my economics and policy wonk training from Harvard, I turned my attention to more practical matters: evidology and how to use it to address technology inflation, an insidious force that is one of the main cost drivers of health care. Which I did for the next ten years (having initially become interested a few years beforehand, when I worked in Oxford for 9 months with Ruairidh Milne and Muir Gray). No more theorising and reading Wittgenstein and JL Austin, whose language theories help to deconstruct our clunky ideas about mind and body, but don’t come up with a solution to the difficult question of how our interpretation of the world affects our bodies, which it does. A bit like saying that the program on the radio affects the physical structure of the radio itself.

When, hey presto – cancer (again)! I can’t work as a chief executive (at least not at the moment)  and I’m landed right back in the middle of my original inquiry. This time I’ve got the time and space to be able to read, reflect, follow the trails of other people’s inquiries to see what holds together and what’s gobbledegook. I can do it all day, every day, just about. And I can try mind-body-spirit treatments for myself (meditation, dream work, body work, and so forth) on myself. No ethics committee approval needed.

In this way, I am a happy camper. I know I’ve included “spirit” in there without explanation. This blog is already too long; I’ll have to talk about that later.

I just wish this dry cough would go away. More scans looming, maybe. That’s where the humbling and maddening aspects of this condition come in.

Anna Donald’s Blog 5

  • Richard Smith

    The idea–indeed, conclusion from Michael Marmot’s studies–that “you get sick according to how you perceive the world” is fascinating and profound. Would I be right to think that you view the world as one endlessly interesting and beautiful puzzle? And you are now, as you explain, your own experiment. That’s why your bulletins from an extraordinary place are so compelling. But then again I reflect that it’s not such an extraordinary place. It’s a place that many of us can expect to be at some time in our lives–so it’s not your place that’s extraordinary but your bulletins.

  • Tom

    Excellent post, again. Besos.

  • Karen A.

    Thanks Anna, for another wonderful entry. The blog is a great thing to be doing and I think very quintessentially Anna – making wonderful ripples that touch and inspire and move so many, and connect us all.

  • Janet Rennie

    anna, I send love and greetings from London. We met once at a dinner hosted by your godfather. This week I attended a very moving memorial service for Elizabeth Bryan, and you may have read her book about her experience of pancreatic cancer; she would have approved of your blog. I follow your thoughts with great interest and admiration. stay as well as you can.

  • Muhammad

    Dear Dr. Anna Donald,

    Please accept my deepest sympathies on your current medical problem. I just wanted to offer a couple of thoughts that came to my mind while I was reading your blog.

    1. Even with metastatic disease, I think you should fight on for your life with every resource imaginable. You must eat good with enough calories to keep your energy level good. focus not on the cancer but how the cancer can get you. One of the known complications is venous thromboembolism. So how about DVT prophylaxis with Low Molecular Weight Heparin. I hope you understand my point. If you have the resources, why not fight for your life by focusing in a pro-active way on all the possible complications of cancer,with prevention and then treatment.

    2. I hope you really dont mind this. But as a Muslim and follower of Prophet Muhammad (May Peace be Upon Him), I have to invite you to study Islam with an open mind. One of the good websites is http://www.islamicity.com Here you can read verses from The Quran and find out what Islam is all about.

    My best regards,

    Dr. Muhammad Fuad Bangash
    Consultant Pulmologist, Intensivist.
    Saudi Arabia

  • Dear Anna
    I was sad to hear that your cancer had returned, but uplifted by your positive response to your illness, and your need to share with others what the treatment entails and how best to cope with it. You do not talk of suffering, which is an indication of your bravery and your endless optimism, and you help us all to realise that the extent to which we suffer in illness can be helped by medication and by our own attitudes.
    I would love to see you in Sydney (davidi@chw.edu.au).
    Best wishes
    David and Carmel Isaacs

  • liz kamps

    Hello Anna

    I think your blog is a wonderful contribution to living alongside a health problem. Many health care professionsl do, but your willingness to share your positivity is insirational. I wish you well on your journey and look forward to hearing how you get on. It is a real challenge to be so informed about EBM and to be dealing with your current situation. I feel it has some parallels with my husband who did research into neuro transmission (published work DSc) and has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Life is so often about the journey and not the destination.
    All best wishes
    Liz

  • Susan

    Hi Anna,

    I read the article about you in “The Age” Good Weekend supplement, and had to write to you.

    I recently read an article in Nova Magazine about a woman named Melissa Hocking. Below you will find the link to that article.

    http://www.novazine.com.au/article_archive/2008/08_08_findingbalance.htm

    She is doing some mind-blowing work healing people from all sorts of disease. It’s definitely work checking it out.

    I wish you all the best of good health!

    Very best wishes,

    Susan.

  • Diana Hale

    Anna

    I also read the Good Weekend article and later that day I was reading the book ” The 5-Minute Meditator” by Eric Harrison – a Perth meditation teacher with 35 years experience in mediation. Last year I completed a 7 week meditation course with one of his trained teachers and subsequently got into Eric’s books and CDs

    See website attached

    http://www.perthmeditationcentre.com.au/

    The beauty of the 5 minute mediator is how lots of very short meditations can be incorporated into every day & each time reduce your stress levels significantly and often through the day

    Wishing you good health

    Diana

  • Hey Dr Anna,

    WOW…what an awesome thing to read such inspriring insights from someone with your amazing knowledge…on the alopathic and alternate side.

    I am a Kinesiologist and was so pleased to see that you had experienced EFT and had great experiences with it. EFT is a part of Kinesiology….and a wonderful, powerful part at that.

    I would be very interested in more of your feedback on your experiences using EFT….especially with your medical situation and training. I have a pulling urge to work with cancer patients and have so much information coming to me on a daily basis I am struggling with how to put it together and how to market it to the conventional medical body….any insight and assistance is always welcome.

    Thank you once again for sharing your story….I know that it will inspire others to look for other avenues of treatment….and they need all the info they can get their hands on.

    On another note….I received an email on a Dr Tullio Simoncini and his theory and treatment of cancer….very interesting and the footage he showed of the results was quite profound….would be interested in your opinion on this theory and treatment.

    Look forward to hearing from you,
    Nicky Whisson

  • judy whalan

    Dear Anna

    I first heard of you when my daughter Jeni was in year 7 at NSGHS – she was inspired by your account of your experiences and I am sure that this supported her in her Rhodes quest. She is now doing a D.Phil in Oxford and I would like to thank you for the seed you planted in her.

    I read your story in the Good Weekend and also found inspiration in your words – I have just started exploring meditation and have long believed that we do not know a fraction of what lies within us or how to harness this inner strength. Thank you for your wise and inspiring words and for sharing your amazing and ongoing experience. I wish you continued strength, peace and love as you continue to explore and record your amazing adventure.

    Judy Whalan

  • Don Ockley

    Dear Anna, My experience after diagnosis with agressive prostate cancer two years ago, parallels yours. I can recommend http://www.worldwithoutcancer.org.uk where there is a 41 page download on the benefits of eating apricot kernels.
    Another recommendation is “Cancer – Cause & Cure” by Percy Weston, and the benefit of “Percy’s Powder”.
    But, “The case for a Creator” by Lee Strobel, probes how complex and well made we are and the argument that this did not just happen; it required intelligence.
    Another reference I’ve found helpful is “the Battle for Health is over pH”, by Gary Tunskey, advancing the theory that we need to keep our bodies alkaline to avoid ALL DISEASE. He says the medical profession is too focussed on symptoms and not enough on causes.
    I hope to be able to discuss my experiences with you.
    Best wishes,
    Don Ockley.

  • Franziska Goyo

    Hi Anna,

    Here is Franziska. Do you remember me from our Sattipattana course together in February? I have been thinking of you now and then. And recently our vipassana teacher, Grace, gave me your article in the good weekend, while I was doing 4 days at the vipassana centre in Blackheath. She found it so inspiring. I’ve got a DVD on healing cancer with raw foods and would like to post a copy to you, if you are interested. And if you have the time and energy I’d love to catch up with you.
    E-mail me or call me: my contact details are on my website: http://www.goyointernational.com

    Best wishes, Franziska