Salutogenesis and cancer

The incidence of cancer has increased significantly in recent decades, especially in the western world (1). In many cases cancer can, however, be cured, or surprisingly long survival times can be achieved, even in advanced stages of the disease. This means that in spite of the disease, many patients succeed in leading a fulfilling life, with a good quality of life.

What happens with people who are able to overcome their illness despite unfavorable conditions? Could it be that their illness was “reduced” in size or even dissolved with medical help on the one hand, but that their organism also regained its own healthy power to rebuild itself, replacing the cancer with self-healing powers?

We have healing potential within us

DNA repair, reorganization and healing constantly occur in all body cells; without these permanent healing processes we could not survive a day. Our life-long, healthy ability to organize ourselves can potentially happen even in a diseased body region. This process cannot be forced, but it can be encouraged and supported, by our inner attitude and by the shaping of the therapeutic environment. The process is almost always associated with a person working to develop themselves on the level of soul and spirit.

Encourage self-determination: Recognize and appreciate the creative healing potential in each human being

Accompanying people who are challenged by cancer requires two-fold therapeutic action:

1. tumor therapy (e.g., surgery, chemotherapy, pain therapy) and  

2. strengthening the body’s own healthy reorganizing forces. 

The latter leads the patient to be an active co-creator on his healing path through various therapeutic exercises and cognitive processes. In anthroposophic oncology, the aim is to establish a relationship of trust and partnership with the patient and to promote the patient’s resourcefulness and internal sources of strength. 

The two goals—disease reduction and health promotion—seem to be more effectively achieved the more we form an interdisciplinary team around the affected person, who accompany the patient and encourage her to help shape her own recovery process. This view is based on the concept of salutogenesis, which—in contrast to the often predominant pathogenetic concept of disease—deals with the conditions needed to achieve and maintain health. Achieving and maintaining health, even under extreme conditions, is intimately connected with being able to experience meaning, comprehend what is happening and influence the process (2). 

Everything that is alive is in development . Health is also a dynamic process, which must be achieved anew at every stage of life. Every age has its own health, and every person finds their own individual balance in health. It is our task to further investigate the amazing healing and regeneration processes inherent in organisms, in order to develop more and more differentiated concepts for salutogenetic treatment (3, 4). 

Salutogenesis research has received a great boost in recent decades, for instance in the fields of rhythmology and immunology. Among other things, increasing attention has been devoted to factors that are associated with surprising cures (5, 6). 

The future development of a disease cannot be predicted with certainty based on the momentary medical findings and the patient’s state of health; mental and spiritual development and the course of a disease are always individual. In addition to a person’s psychosocial living conditions, his spirituality —e.g., meditative practice—is intimately connected with developing his power to heal. 

The developmental aspects that have become scientifically verifiable today through epigenetic research, psychoneuroimmunology and salutogenesis research all live in Anthroposophic Medicine’s understanding of body, soul and spirit. The interdisciplinary concept of Anthroposophic Medicine brings these findings to life in everyday clinical practice. The current pathological findings are seen in the context of the ongoing biographical development of the individual person.

Against this background, a medical team’s will to heal keeps open the space for desirable development, despite a perhaps serious medical prognosis. Belief in getting well and the will to recover can unfold in both the person affected and the people around him, just as death and dying can be integrated into life. An exclusive focus on the desire for physical healing can—perhaps also considering the possible immortality of soul and spirit—turn into an affirmation of fate, and trust in the guidance of the spiritual world. 

The therapeutic community—companions and assisters in development

The affected person, while practicing and raising her awareness, can—in the sense of the old Latin formula fabricando fabricamur , “in forging we forge ourselves”—participate in her own multi-layered healing process and develop her own innate potential.

An ability to perceive and look within, a space for self-encounter, for self-knowledge and (new) development can open up during the therapeutic process. These new areas of experience are created in individual conversation or in health seminars. The person experiences the relevance of thinking, feeling and willing for building up the body anew, with the possibility to perceive dysfunctional patterns and practice new perspectives. New strength and hope, as well as fostering three kinds of trust—in oneself, in the other(s) and in the guidance of the spiritual world—can be fruits of the developmental processes in the therapeutic community. These support the patient, who often feels isolated in her individual recovery (7, 8).

A trusting bond forms among people in the course of these individual developmental processes, which often leads in the direction of autogenesis, i.e., to the goal of being one who is in the deepest inner core of one’s being. Community can develop among those affected, a community of development and destiny, in which people lovingly accompany each other through different phases of illness. 

A therapeutic community which promotes and strengthens this kind of salutogenetic activity creates an environment in which the person challenged by the illness can come to encounter his deepest inner being. New experiences and development are made possible in a space of encounter characterized by caring attention, respect and esteem for his entire human being. This leads to recognition and appreciation of the potential for creativity and healing in human beings.

When patients experience amazing, unexpected developments, and see the serenity and trust that fellow patients have in life’s further development, even at the end of life, this reduces anxiety. It promotes the courage to be, along with trust in the process of becoming.

1 Stewart BW, Wild CP (eds.). World Cancer Report 2014. Lyon: International Agency for Research on Cancer. World Health Organization; 2014. 

2 Antonovsky A, Franke A. Salutogenese. Zur Entmystifizierung der Gesundheit. Tübingen: dgvt-Verlag; 1997.

3 Kienle GS, Kiene H. Die Coley’sche Fiebertherapie der Krebserkrankung – Historischer Markstein oder heute noch Vorbild? Ein Beispiel für Cognition-based Medicine. Der Merkurstab 2003;56(6):355-364.

4 Kienle GS. Fever in Cancer Treatment: Coley’s Therapy and Epidemiologic Observations. Global Advances in Health and Medicine 2012;1(1):92-100.

5 Turner K. 9 Wege in ein krebsfreies Leben. Munich: Irisiana Verlag; 2015.

6 Simonton OC, Matthews Simonton S, Creighton J. Wieder gesund werden: Eine Anleitung zur Aktivierung der Selbstheilungskräfte für Krebspatienten und ihre Angehörigen. 15th ed. Reinbek: Rowohlt; 2001.

7 Ulrich J. Selbstheilungskräfte, Quellen der Gesundheit und Lebensqualität. 4th ed. Stuttgart: aethera® im Verlag Urachhaus; 2018.

8 Ulrich J. Unlocking Your Self-Healing Potential: A Journey Back to Health Through Authenticity, Self-determination and Creativity. Edinburgh: Floris Books; 2018.