How & Why Guided Imagery Works

Cancer victor describes psycho-neuro-immunological background

Part 2 of excerpts from Gerald W. White’s former book Cancer Wars MAARS JOURNEY, continued from Part 1.

It is only necessary to look around us to see the growth of academic interest in mind-body medicine. I have attended a three day seminar on "Spirituality in Medicine" directed by Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard University Medical School. The course was presented in nearby Houston and I was surprised to find over 700 people from all over the world in attendance.

The presentations there were awe-inspiring as to results from seemingly hopeless cases. With the full weight of the scientific method now being applied to ongoing studies, it seems reasonable to project that the contemporary medical scene, especially that associated with the treatment of cancer, is in for some astonishing and wonderful changes.

Dear reader, I know that you would not be reading this unless you or a loved one is currently suffering from some form of cancer. There is a growing belief, even within the medical community that you have the cure within your own body if you can just activate it. Many of us believe that we have been afforded a dim glimpse of how this can be accomplished and are striving to know more.

Whatever you do, I urge you to take personal charge of your healing program. It will seem awkward at first, like driving in England, but as time passes you will come to know that you are correct. Always remember that if you don’t take charge of your healing somebody else will and you probably won’t like the outcome.

At a recent meeting, I postulated "White’s Law of Cancer Survivorship". The formal statement of this law is, "There is no law of the physical sciences that dictates that any particular individual must die of any particular cancer". There being no law of science that stands in the way makes healing a distinct and undeniable possibility.

We participants in the front lines of the "Cancer Wars" are just ordinary men and women drafted without our consent into this service. We need not be victims. We can turn this experience to ultimate good in service to others. The choice is ours.


(What mother didn’t tell us about the good guys and the bad guys!)

The most wonderful thing about the human immune system is that it really does exist! The fact that the system is expressed in many interdependent components merely adds to the wonder.

Humans have for thousands of years been born, grown up and died without ever so much as a thought given to this quiet and obscure system that continually serves to nurture and protect us. Its appreciation began with a grasp of how immunity to certain diseases could be induced in the human body. The "how" came centuries before the "why". Simple observations by creative people led to giant leaps forward. Small pox no longer exists in the world through efforts of this sort.

One unfortunate result of the modern-day proliferation of knowledge is that society in general tends to demand simple answers to what may be extremely complex questions.

Cancer patients are typically caught up in the realm of uncertainty that separates the "how" of various treatment modalities from the absolute understanding of "why" certain components of the human system work as they do. This has not only meant new science, but also a new language (if one may call the language of the scientific Greeks new).

Attempts on the part of a lay patient to study the immune system first encounter a language barrier. Words such as antigen, hematopoiesis, cytokine and neutrophil seem at first to stand in the way. It is not the intent of this work to deal with these, as would a textbook of hematology or immunology. Rather, the intent of this simplistic work is merely to point out their existence and allow the patient to contemplate their existence and mentally acknowledge it.

All too often, the discussion of a particularly interesting phenomenon ends with the admonition; "the exact mechanism of this effect or action is not well understood". This is the nature of developing knowledge and it is good in that progress is made by asking better and better questions. The reader is encouraged not to let the big words get in the way.

All of the human immune cells are derived from what is called pluripotent stem cells in the bone marrow. Under the influence of cytokines (the so-called messenger proteins) these cells are capable of differentiation into a variety of different cells.

Pluripotent (meaning capable of becoming many different kinds) stem cells first differentiate into two basic subgroups, lymphoid stem cells (the precursors of B cells, T cells and natural killer (NK) cells) and myeloid stem cells (the precursors of red cells, platelets, granulocytes, and monocytes).

Although red cells originate from this lineage, they are not considered "immune" cells. Their primary function is to carry oxygen to the various body parts. The granulocytes include neutrophils, eosinophils, mast cells and basophils. The monocytes circulate in the blood and lymphatics but become macrophages when they enter the tissues.

The cytokines, which we shall encounter later by more familiar names, influence the growth of an original stem cell into a specific progenitor cell. Once the progenitor identification is determined, only one type cell must then result. A neutrophil progenitor, for example, must produce neutrophils.

The marrow of the human bones may be thought of as the birthing center for all the cells that maintain and defend the body. If imagery has as a goal, a call to arms for the immune system to activate, then it is logical to involve and illuminate the dark, hidden regions at the center of the bones in the visualization exercises.

In the 1980s researchers began to turn attention to the role of the mind in the internal management of the body. Candace Pert in the summer of 1986 published "The Wisdom of the Receptors: Neuropeptides, the Emotions, and Bodymind" in the Journal of the Institute for the Advancement of Health.

This opened the door to what has developed as Psychoneuroimmunology or as some express it, Mind/Body medicine. This word is so new to our language that a search of Encyclopedia Britannica at this writing did not come up with any hits. It would appear that the mind and the body are different expressions of the same information.

To the above cast of biological characters must now be added neurons and peptides. This for discussion purposes, of course, since they have been present from the very beginning of the species.

The human brain contains about 10,000,000 neurons, each with its own identity. This individuality is expressed by its interaction with other neurons and by its secretions. Each has its own function depending on its intrinsic properties and location. It can receive inputs from other groups of neurons, assimilate these inputs and transmit responses to other groups of neurons.

Most neurons consist of three distinct regions: 1) the cell body (soma), 2) the nerve fiber (axon) and 3) the receiver (dendrites). Researchers in the field have postulated that the critical link between thought and action is the neuropeptide. These messenger molecules are the traffic cops controlling the intersection where mind and body meet and cross over. They can fit like a key to unlock and initiate actions through the receptors on target cells.

There is no logical reason to suppose that the cells of the immune system would somehow be excluded from response to neuron initiated messages. Unfortunately, the literature does not give us a concrete explanation of how the smell of a flower or the beauty of a sunset evokes the response that it does or why that response is so different from one person to the other.

There is agreement in medicine today that the human immune system can be overridden by signals from the mind to do harm. There are many examples of this. These may range from the primitive voodoo priest calling for an unfortunate believer to be cursed, perhaps to death, to the insensitive physician who couches the news of cancer in such terms as "Don’t expect any miracles as the survival rate is very low for this type of cancer".

It is generally agreed among psychiatrists that voodoo can actually kill. A voodoo priest can actually cause the death of a person, provided that both the priest and the subject were born and raised in the culture. In this case, the power of belief is ultimate and will win out over the body’s defense mechanisms.

The question has been asked, "What is the modern equivalent of voodoo that some oncologists use to kill their patients?" And the answer has been given, "Those damn statistics".

Emotions can suppress the immune system. These would include fear, grief, disappointment, stress, frustration, unresolved conflict and the list goes on.

Admitting that the mind can kill, the question becomes one of the equal and opposite ability to cure. For some reason, this concept is just not allowed equal time for discussion in most cancer centers. This, unfortunately, does not reflect the curiosity that is inherent in the makeup of the truly creative scientist.

Symmetry is practically a constant in nature. The wings of the butterfly are a prime example. The ancient Chinese and for that matter most other religions have held that good and evil are contemporaneous in human affairs. Yet, we find ourselves in a "shooting war" with cancer where only the chemical and mechanistic weapons are allowed on the battlefield.

The medical convention, in somewhat of an inverse analogy to the Geneva convention’s ban on the use of chemical weapons, seems firm in its opposition to the expanded choice of weapons afforded by Mind/Body medicine. Historians have noted that the Japanese destruction of American battleships by air power at Pearl Harbor changed the very nature of naval warfare. All this despite the previous ruination of early air power proponent Billy Mitchell by the advocates of conventional warfare. Battleship admirals and trench warfare generals, failing to see the enhancement of forces by the addition of air power, felt somehow threatened by this new technology. It is impossible to hold back the dawn of a new day.

Thus to acknowledge the evil capability of Mind/Body medicine while denying the potential for good is to risk intellectual disaster.

No intelligent advocate of Mind/Body medicine would see it as anything but complementary to the wonderful tools that modern medicine has given us. A person who has, for example, just suffered a compound fracture should not look first to mind/body medicine to set the bones. It is painful to recall the stories of parents not letting their child with leukemia receive chemotherapy so that the child could be healed.

If by mental exercises, one could enhance the effectiveness of cancer treatment, then there appears to be no basis in logic not to do so. The voluntary instructions that our conscious left brain give to the body to do such things as run, jump or grasp are so routine that we give no thought to the process by which they are carried out. When we get to the involuntary instructions from the sub-conscious right brain such as heart beat, breathing or immune cell response, then the situation becomes cloudy.

Perhaps the "Holy Grail" of immunology would be a positive response to a conscious verbal command to send out all the troops to a cancer site and kill it out completely. Admittedly, we cannot do this but it becomes a valid path for research to see how close we can come by a disciplined approach using Mind/Body medicine.

Let us briefly look at some of the individual elements of the immune system. These are the "good guys" in the war on cancer. Although they have been "taken by surprise" by a growing cancer, they are still there and are capable of being called into action. An officer, during the heat of a battle in the American Civil War, found a regiment standing idle. All its officers had been killed or wounded. Alert to opportunity, he gave the orders to send it into the fight and won the day. The following are the troops of the cancer patients army, albeit for the moment down but definitely not out.

ANTIGENS: An antigen (antibody generator) is a substance that is capable of triggering a specific immune response. These are not cells, themselves, anymore than a fingerprint is a person, but are parts of the "bad guy" cells such as bacteria, viruses or cancer.

These antigens may be thought of as the "muddy footprints" by which the intruder is recognized and marked for destruction by the defenders. The antibody response requires a recognition molecule such as the T cell receptor or the B cell. The mechanism of the response is somewhat different.

B cell surface antibodies are good recognizers whereas T cells recognize the antigen only after it has been processed and presented to them by an antigen-presenting cell. These cells, usually macrophages, neutrophils and dendritic cells then pass the enemy recognition signal on to the T helper lymphocytes as a call to action. This marks the cancer for destruction by the killer cells of the immune system.

Cancer patients often fail to realize that the human defenders such as the T lymphocytes or natural killer cells are perfectly capable of killing cancer cells. Perhaps this is the result of misconceptions that have developed over the years that incorrectly see the cancer cell as an invulnerable killer. The wonderful truth is that quite the opposite is true.

B CELLS: B Cells develop in the bone marrow and are the ones responsible for the production of antibodies. These cells are developed with antigen specific surface antibodies. Millions upon millions of them are circulating at any given time looking to acquire their programmed targets. When they do, they can exhibit a variety of responses with some exciting results.

# B Cell Activation: The B cell can immediately recognize the antigen for which it is targeted. It binds to the antigen via its specific surface immunoglobulin, processes it, and presents it to the T helper cells for recognition. The B and T cells then work in coordination to generate an interactive defensive program. A secondary effect is that the activated T cell then sends signals via cytokines for the B cells to proliferate.

# B Cell Differentiation: As the "naïve" B cell that has never seen antigen suddenly does so, the interaction with T cells can cause yet another effect. Cytokines released by the T helper cell cause the antigen specific B cells to proliferate and differentiate into B memory cells and plasma cells.

Plasma cells are "antibody factories". They are many times larger than normal B cells. Plasma cells do not have surface immunoglobulin but secrete antibodies specific for the antigen that stimulated it. This process occurs in the presence of cytokines secreted by the T helper cell. These are the "messenger molecules" such as the interleukins and interferons.

# Class Switch: This is a process by which the B cell, once differentiated into a plasma cell, can further switch the class of antibody (IgM, IgG, IgA) that it produces without further losing its original antigen specificity. This antibody diversity again occurs under the influence of these busy little cytokines.

# Antibody Secretion: Plasma cells are the final result of B cells, which have now encountered antigen and are no longer naïve. These cells live in the spleen and lymph nodes and secrete antibodies to combat the antigen that it has now recognized as the enemy. It takes a few days for levels of antibodies to develop in the bloodstream.

# B Memory Cells: Some of the daughter cells of stimulated B cells develop into long-life B memory cells. They live in the bone marrow, spleen and lymphoid tissue. These cells are the result of a previous encounter with a specific antigen and can "remember" it. When they encounter the same antigen later, they leap into action much more quickly.

They are able to again proliferate and differentiate into plasma cells, producing much higher quantities of antibody with a greater affinity (or attraction) for the enemy antigen. They may now be thought of as lurking watchdogs that have been given the scent of the intruder and are waiting to attack it.

T CELLS: T cells are lymphocytes that mature in the thymus gland. This pear-shaped gland is located high in the chest just below the sternum. Often in imagery exercises, the patient will be asked to place the palm of the hand on the chest just above the sternum as a further means of access to the thymus. Here the T cells receive their "education".

This amounts to marching orders for combat. As lead commanders of the immune forces, they must learn to differentiate between friendly cells and enemy forces. The T cells mature into two varieties, CD4 and CD8. The newly formed T cells in the thymus will have both characteristics for a short time. These "double positive" cells soon differentiate into either the CD4 helper cell (Th cells) or CD8 cytotoxic cancer killers (Tc cells). Both types have the T cell receptors (TcR) but their functions are different.

1) The T Cell Receptor (TcR): Both Th cells and Tc cells have surface antigen receptor molecules, which are alpha and beta polypeptide chains. Note the previous reference to the peptides as the junction where mind and body appear to cross.

A minor population of T cells of which very little is presently known have delta and gamma molecular chains. The alpha and beta chains interact with five proteins of a group referred to as CD3. This combination of elements can recognize antigens on the surface of tumor cells. The TcR possesses both constant and variable regions. By gene rearrangement, the variable regions can create a diverse range of antigen recognition receptors.

Each T cell receptor is unique for a specific antigen just as each antibody molecule is unique for a specific antigen. However, while antibody on the surface of B cells will recognize antigens independently, T cells require a presentation of the "processed" antigen on the surface of an antigen-presenting cell. Antibodies will recognize antigens as such but T cells require a presentation on the surface of an antigen-presenting cell.

Contact by the TcR-CD3 unit with the surface topography of the MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex) molecule results in the activation of the T cell to kill the targeted offender. Activated T cells carry on the attack while further helping B cells and producing cytokines. The cytokine Il-2 acts to promote the growth, proliferation and differentiation of the T cell that was stimulated by the antigen.

# The T Cell Helpers (Th): If there are generals in this immune army, they are the T helper cells (CD4). They have received the highest education in the Thymus (the West Point of the immune army) and are given the tactical authority to "attack" or "not attack" a foreign antigen.

Through their controlled release of cytokines, they call other T cells to action, summon neutrophils and macrophages to the front lines and call in artillery by signaling the B cells to start making antibody. Th cells have the power to summon the immune forces or shut them down when the battle is over and you have won.

# The cytotoxic Tc Cell: These cells also mature in the thymus and are targeted to recognize antigens. They possess a CD8 marker and a TcR, which recognizes a specific antigen. As the name implies, their job is that of a cell killer. They must be activated into a mature, cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL). This occurs in a two step process. First is interaction with an antigen-MHC on the surface of the target cell. Second, the Tc cell must be stimulated by cytokines such as Il-2, released as "orders" from the Th cells. The reader should note well the cover photo and retain it for imagery.

# The Killing Process: The actual killing of the cancer cell occurs in three steps. First is the binding of antigens and receptors that lock the cells in a death struggle. The CTL then conforms to the surface of the cancer cell and chemical agents released from the CTL penetrate the cell wall. This penetration is followed immediately by the injection of enzymes, cytokines, and a chemical called perforin to poke more holes into the now helpless cancer cell. The final act of this deadly drama is the death of the enemy cell.

This hand-to-hand killing process is accomplished over a time interval of little more than two minutes. So much for the notion that cancer cells are invulnerable and there is therefore no hope. Quite the contrary, no cancer cell can survive such an attack. No doubt a clear understanding of just how to initiate this in human patients would produce that wonderful trip to Stockholm. An absolute understanding is not necessary. It is only necessary to get close enough!

MACROPHAGES: The production and release into the bloodstream of monocytes by the bone marrow is increased by an immune response. These circulate for a short time and then enter into the tissue where they mature and take up residence as macrophages. These are the giant "eaters" and they may reside for years waiting for the call to arms. They may be thought of as sentinels who blow the trumpet.

By antigen presentation, they hold aloft fragments of the enemy cells to call other "friendlies" such as T cells into the battle. They also secrete chemicals that are poisonous to cancer cells. They may actually show up and destroy the cancer cells. See figure 3.

NEUTROPHILS: These granulocytes are also produced in the bone marrow. They can assume many shapes and they circulate in the blood waiting for a call to action. Attaching themselves to the sticky wall of the blood vessels, they can actually change shape and slither through the vessel walls to enter the tissue for the purpose of killing unwanted intruders.

Highly mobile in the circulation, they are the first to arrive at the scene of an inflammation. They are the smaller "eaters", capable of engulfing (phagocytizing) foreign antigens, degrading them and presenting them to Th cells for recognition. Enemies that are too large to phagocytize are weakened by the release of caustic enzymes carried within the cellular structure of the neutrophil. Again using the military analogy, these are the fighter planes harrying the enemy positions.

NATURAL KILLER CELLS: NK cells have some similarity to T cells but they are not T cells. They do not have the specific antigen targeting inherent in the T cell. An NK cell kills a tumor cell by the release of perforin and other molecules that kill the tumor cell by damaging its membrane. Since a weakness of the cancer cell is its inability to repair itself, the target cell literally breaks apart as it is destroyed.

NK cells are stimulated and their cytotoxicity increased by the release of Interferon (IfN) as well as Il2 from the Th cells. NK cells are transformed by Il-2 into LAK (lymphokine-activated killer) cells. These killer LAK cells are many times deadlier that regular NK cells. See figure 2.

As has been noted, the above is a purely cursory look at the human immune system. The objective is not to educate immunologists but rather to raise awareness on the part of the cancer patient of the multifaceted wonders of the immune system.

Rarely ever does a newly diagnosed cancer patient have all of the above friendly forces explained. Instead it appears fashionable in most quarters to engage in the death programming discussion of statistics. The patient may well be admonished to "fight" but is rarely given instructions in the weapons that are available for the fight.

Adding the power of suggestion, done in a disciplined manner, is no more than the introduction of another branch of the services into the battle. As we move into the imagery exercises, some of the above terms will now be familiar and the healing process can proceed from logic rather than mysticism.

We, the citizens of the world, are engaged in a deadly struggle with cancer. If, by the appropriate use of Mind/Body, we can help hold the line and inflict casualties on the enemy and, in so doing, buy time for the researchers, then this is no small achievement.

Mankind will beat this disease. Dedicated researchers are daily working toward this end and they are worthy of support. The sad truth is that if the "magic bullet" were discovered immediately, thousands would die before it could make its way through the processes of manufacturing and distribution. We must, in the interim, hit the enemy with all the forces that we can effectively muster.

Chapter 3: THE JOURNEY BEGINS contains a first guided imagery exercise. Excerpt: “In this first imagery exercise we dealt primarily, although not exclusively, with relaxation. Perhaps another way to express it would be as a "mental housekeeping drill". One does not normally consider relaxation as a weapon, but, in the cancer wars, that is exactly what it is.

Note that the exercise actively involved all five of the human senses. As the relaxed participant went through the journey, there were opportunities to see, hear, feel, taste and smell. Further, there was a constant appeal to the subconscious neural system to send it into action as well.

The various instructions given throughout were designed to leave no doubt that the subconscious mind’s mission is to promote healing. All appeals to the dark side were rejected and sent out of the body/mind relationship. Man is the only animal with a memory of the future. It is this recognition and emphasis on future events that gives the subconscious the admonition to deliver the patient safe and sound for participation in those events. Refusal to disconnect from the past does not preserve the past, it merely destroys the future.

This exercise is to be repeated over and over and over. Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School and the originator of the "Relaxation Response" has noted that the three most important words for healing through relaxation are "Repetition, repetition and repetition".

Chapter 4: THE ATTACK OF THE GOOD GUYS, details an “imagery session assum[ing] a more aggressive nature” including the use of a healing white light.

Natural Killer cell attached to a

Figure 2: An "NK" cell (N) attached to a "target" cell "T".. The NK cell will kill the now helpless target cell quickly, by the injection of deadly perforin. (Courtesy of Dr. G. Arancia and K. Malorni, Rome)

Human macrophage attacking a chain of streptococcus

Figure 3: A human macrophage (center) attacking a chain of streptococcus (right). The spherical lymphocyte rides atop the macrophage. Antibodies are formed in this process. The macrophage ingests antigen from the intruder surface, processes it and presents it to T-cells for destruction.


About Gerald W. White.

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More excerpts from Gerald W. White’s Cancer Wars MAARS Journey (now: 3 Months to Life):

  • Cancer Victory Thanks to “the Efficacy of a Combination of Prayer, Meditation and Guided Imagery”

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