an ayurvedic view of cancer
In the face of the most difficult etiology, cancer, Ayurveda offers four overlapping modes of reflection and support: the descriptive, the preventative, the purificatory, and the supportive/palliative. Overlaps occur because the descriptive in itself has preventative power, while palliation, in turn, will always involve the purification of root causes, even when the momentum of the disease is overwhelming. “Palliation” does not necessarily refer to a final-illness context in Ayurveda: it also generally means “improvement of imbalancing factors”, or, as presented below, it can be thought of as intelligent dietary support during the radical interventions of chemotherapy and radiation. In true final-illness circumstances, all of these modes transcend their physiological focus, to become tools for a celebrative and reconciliatory inquiry into life. The doctor doesn’t give up, but she does change the medicine – from the specific to the expansive.
This brief presentation will provide a basic introduction to these four modes.
We might learn a good deal about cancer, and about the breadth of the Ayurvedic mindset, by looking closely at how we respond to the word itself. It is an ancient word: loaded, triggering, with a cutting sound. (Kh is always the sound of destruction, in both ancient and modern poetics.) Through both visceral phonetics and the accretion of its scientific and poetic (but always morbid) meanings throughout the human story, the very word ‘cancer’ begins to pulse with what it describes.
No less sensitive to its sound than to what it signifies, the Greeks used their name for the crayfish to designate the disease. Hippocrates had performed autopsies on patients who had died abrupt, mysterious, complicated, and painful deaths, and found crayfish-like growths burrowing into their organs – hardened, extra-skeletal fists extending tendril-like and vascular “legs” into the inner tissues. He knew the crayfish was blind, fearful, omnivorous, cannibalistic, a scavenger of decaying things. It is a simple and empowering metaphor for any unwelcome growth, in any area of life.
The word is also the name of the fourth astrological constellation (Karka in Sanskrit), long associated in mythology with one’s homeland, childhood dwelling, mother, the human heart, and all hidden feelings that form the shared ocean of humanity. This astro-mythic connection evokes our core sites of psychological trauma: sorrows in youth, instability in maternal relations, depression, anguish. Surrounding such despairs is a often a hard skeleton of defensiveness, which has great coping and even survival purpose, but can become impenetrable to negotiation or release.
The ocean of Indian thought from which Ayurveda emerges agrees both then and now with Hippocrates, and carries on a similar analysis in a living tradition. Throughout the millennia of Ayurvedic practice, cancer is said to begin as a defensive contraction of emotion that bends, distorts, and finally binds the flow of life through the system of tissues that constitutes the somatic. This binding of flow introduces internal separations, competitions for resources, a subconscious scarcity mentality, and finally, competing forms of intelligence within the same body: shall the tissues or the tumour receive nourishment? Who am I, and what is my purpose?
The pattern rolls: the contraction that begins as an emotion is always mirrored in the gripping of visceral tissue, which translates quickly into the distortion of postural structure, which in turn slows organic function, which in turn suppresses digestive fire, which in turn leads to an effusion of metabolic wastes that exceed the power of immunity. At a certain point of toxemia, the root intelligence of life itself becomes distorted, and the purpose of the tissues shifts towards hosting rather than repelling invasive and mutating energies. The undigested and unintegrated emotion takes on its own intelligence, and, like a zygote, begins to subdivide madly according to its own chaotic directive. The tumour – the fleshly attempt to make functional tissue out of toxic resources – grows opportunistically with the energy of extreme egotism – a sociopath incapable of recognizing its dependence, its context, its home. In some ways, Ayurveda describes cancer in terms of an emotional “possession” made visible.
When does this contraction of emotion begin? In the first glimmer of anxiety (vata), the first flame of irritation (pitta), or the first moment in which you lose heart or direction (kapha). And how does this contraction mutate into perilous metastatic growth? When the anxiety, irritations, and depressions of daily life progress through repetition and familiarity beyond reactions to adversity to become strategies by which we consolidate identity into three categories: the anxious person, the angry person, the depressed person. In Ayurveda, each are said to build crustaceous energies similar to their proclivities, and the resulting abnormal growths will display foreseeable qualities.
The tumour of anxiety is dry and sharply angular, calciferous, growing erratically and at home amongst bone and nerve. The tumour of anger is inflamed and hemorrhagic, extraordinarily hungry, masterful at vascularization, and at home in all scarlet viscera and all fiery organs such as the liver, heart, spleen, and uterus. The tumour of depression grows slowly, with ill-defined boundaries as suited to its general malaise and apathy, is soft, non-aggressive, and most at home in adipose tissues, especially the breast.
In brief we could say that cancer develops from unprocessed experiences that we defend from inquiry until they harden into identity structures upon which we paradoxically come to depend. Such dependency literally changes our somatic chemistry and the very formation of our tissues to reflect and support a retroflexive state (to use the Gestalt term).
The technicalities of tumour emergence in Ayurveda follow the same story as all doshic disturbance — these are beyond the scope of this survey. Cancer in Ayurveda is not seen as a discrete disease, but a milestone on the continuum of doshic aggravation and ama (toxic waste) accumulation. A tumour is a deepening pattern of internal isolationism that, disconnected from the bodymind’s greater intelligence, begins to exhibit its own purpose, drive, and even a form of dark enjoyment.
In a nutshell, Ayurvedic descriptive therapy for cancer is this: something toxic is within you, having entered through diet, the emotions, the environment, or even the internal momentum of your unfolding life. It has taken on a life of its own, and is expressing a conflict of purpose that probably mirrors internal conflicts in other areas. Its potential gift is to provide an ideal context in which you may examine all of your experience, and all of your relationships, to see where your momentum can be reunified with your aspirations.
Blessed with a descriptive model that honours all of her experience with attention, reason, and empathy, a model that cannot evoke blame because it presents many causes, the cancer-experiencer is invited to deepen, the slow, gardening-like process of self-inquiry.
If the descriptive is the poetry of Ayurveda, prevention is its prose. Understanding oneself in relationship to everything is the foundation: home, family, intimate relationship, work, city, country. All doshic balancing protocols apply. Increased sensitivity to subtle internal feelings is encouraged, so that cancer is intuited not as a sudden, acute, and unintelligible perversion of bodily intelligence, but a long-term response to minor aggravations and pollutions that wear down the tissue’s ability to maintain sensible collective integrity.
Basic Ayurvedic protocols for the healthy are central to cancer prevention. They are no more specific than this. Emotional fluidity and self-inquiry is paramount. In ancient societies, the emotions are massaged through familial and tribal rituals and networks. Many of us moderns need a trained replacement for the tribe we now lack. The weekly or periodic therapist can serve this role. So can a yoga studio culture with a strong community ethic.
Essential to understanding the Ayurvedic vision of cancer prevention is the fact that Ayurvedic standards of disease detection are more subtle than conventional modes, which we might critique for being super-specialized and in service to an overall inefficient model of catastrophe-management. The first and most important example of this is that a conventional Stage 1 diagnosis of cancer corresponds to the 6th (and final) stage of disease progression in Ayurvedic etiology. This means that Ayurveda has five clearly defined preceding benchmarks for the prediction and detection of vulnerability to cancer. In other words, by the time the client receives upsetting news from the biopsy, it is five, ten, or twelve years since she might have gone to a good Ayurvedic consultant and been told: “These are the imbalances you present in your daily life, and if they are not corrected they may accumulate into energetic blockages that are much more difficult to clear.” Such a statement, of course, does not reflect the kind of statistical predictability offered by modern gene therapy. It would be based rather upon individual analysis of both natal and circumstantial constitution (prakriti and vikriti). In Ayurveda, it is implicit that statistics do not sufficiently apply to the individual to render meaningful context or counsel, but that daily experience is a book for client and therapist to read and interpret together.
Modern cancer treatment purifies through chemotherapy and radiation, which are radical applications of fire element. Ayurvedic purification is based on bitterness and astringency, along with some pungency – mainly cold and reducing therapies that dissuade excess tissue growth while at the same time re-educating the tissues in discernment and insight. The difficulty with both conventional and Ayurvedic approaches is that they severely limit digestive strength, which makes the restoration of fundamental immunity a difficult process.
For those who are not willing to undergo chemotherapy and radiation, Ayurveda offers radical cleansing procedures:
- pancha karma: a 3-week to 3-month clinical programme involving oleation, sudation, emesis, purgation, colon cleansing, and dietary reeducation. All actions are designed, timed, and supervised precisely according to individual circumstance.
- radical cleansing diet, featuring raw juices of bitter greens (massive amounts of kale) and sprouted legumes, but always warmed with fresh ginger and fresh turmeric. It is crucial to remember that cleansing diets in general deplete prana, and must not be maintained for long. Balancing cleansing with restorative protocols is ideal.
- direct oil compress and sudation of dry and fatty tumours (never for the inflammatory)
- powerful bitter herbs: katuki, neem, manjishta, goldenseal – always balanced with warming herbs and moistening diuretics like caltrops
- kitcheri monodiet
- careful use of supplementation (which is commonly seen to challenge already weakened digestion)
- complete abstinence from all stimulants and immune depressants (caffeine, alcohol, refined sugar)
- serious reconsideration of daily schedule, including taking a health sabbatical
- emotional purification through good listening counsel
- spiritual purification through restoring old supportive traditions that are still appropriate, or exploring new paths of internal inquiry
It is very difficult to assess success rates for these practices, as in modern times they are almost never practiced alone and exclusively. As available choices today, they are undertaken with great courage, self-awareness, and faith.
For those who do pursue the fiery cleansing of chemotherapy and radiation, Ayurveda offers key dietary and herbal support for the GI tract, and fundamental immunology (ojas), with a special focus on cooling and soothing therapies, aids to the liver as it metabolizes the invasive chemistry, and concentrated nutrition and rest in the chemotherapy interim periods. This last point is most important: if immunity/vitality can be bolstered through temporary GI tract repair between chemo sessions, the client’s capacity to digest the therapy increases vastly.
Key strategies include:
- maintaining certain roots of the radical cleansing diet
- increasing sattvic proteins, especially almonds, mung, and tofu
- fierce protection of sleep: more than 8 hours per night is best, and if this doesn’t happen (there are typically waves of nausea at vata-pitta junctions of the day (3pm and 3am)
- absolutely avoiding acidifying foods
- tapioca as a primary food of convalescence
- no foods that tax digestion: blended grounding soups are best
- yoga nidra
- self-massage daily with org. coconut oil to remoisten ‘chemo skin’
- best veg: celery, asparagus, cilantro, watercress, yam/sweet potato
- cooling diuresis through melons and coriander
- constant hydration of rasa dhatu (plasma) through natural isotonics
- all emotional and spiritual protocols in the purification regime
Once chemotherapy and/or radiation is complete, or on pause, rapid alkalization is the goal of Ayurveda, along with the rebuilding of digestive power.
The client is mothered, always, with kindness, and space.