Alternative Medicine
Cancer and Mental Imagery

In the 1970's O. Carl Simonton, M.D., a therapeutic radiologist, began looking for ways of tapping the power of the mind to assist in the healing of cancer. He was initially surprised that nowhere in all of medicine could he find anything useful. However, by exploring sports psychology and business, he discovered the healing power of mental imagery.

Dr. Simonton's landmark book, Getting Well Again , outlined his approach to begin tapping the power of the mind to assist in healing. Simonton's belief was that you had to treat the whole person, and you had to address stress. Stress weakens the immune system, making it more difficult for our bodies to kill cancer cells. Today, his concepts are well-accepted throughout complementary and alternative medicine, and cancer treatment centers focus on the whole person.

Pioneers threaten established beliefs and behaviors. As a result, they often come under attack. In 1981, the American Cancer Society (ACS) published their first document about Dr. Simonton's cancer treatment center, stating that there were no physical benefits whatsoever, although the ACS did report significant, positive changes in mood and stress levels. It is my understanding that Dr. Simonton was blacklisted by the ACS.

The initial approach that Dr. Simonton used was to have cancer patients visualize their cancer as being very weak, or like hamburger. White blood cells were to be visualized as being powerful, hungry, fish that swim to the site of cancer and gobble it up. To this day, many people who assist cancer patients are still using his initial “Attack Visualization” techniques. I read Dr. Simonton's book in 1977 and felt a great deal of truth in his beliefs and approach. I began treating physical health issues with mental imagery that year.

Cancer treatment is complex. I believe in a comprehensive approach that includes multiple modalities, which usually includes surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy. Over the years, I have seen how important the mind can be in either reversing illness, or speeding it up. The keys to “mind power” are the patient's: 1) belief that the mind can affect the body, 2) desire to make the effort to tap the mind-body connection's ability to assist in healing, and 3) choice and intention for optimal health. There are no guarantees that any treatment will cure any illness. Mental imagery has cured countless illnesses, including cancer, but I would never suggest looking at imagery as a primary cancer treatment. I prefer to work hand-in-hand with an open-minded oncologist.

Mental Imagery

Mental imagery is the deepest, built-in healing resource and source of power. To clarify some terminology, “visualization” is one form of “mental imagery.” Imagery involves bringing all five senses to bear. The most common form of imagery is “worry.” In mental imagery, we turn this natural, innate process to your advantage, putting you in more control of your mind . . . and your life. Imagery is the language that allows your mind to directly “talk to” and affect your body. Put another way, imagery is the key that gives your mind access to unlock mysteries of the body and to change physiology.

Imagery involves entering an altered state of consciousness in which you may experience one or all of your senses at the same time. In that altered state you don't interact with the world in the usual way and your everyday concerns and worries drop away, even if just for a brief period. In that altered state we tend to experience more, and think less. In that state we can drop outdated and negative ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving and substitute healthier patterns.

Imagery is a way of refining and organizing a “natural process.” Like a magnifying glass that focuses the sun's rays, imagery focuses what is already there. We all have immediate access to imagery at all times. In the clinical practice of imagery that “natural process” is focused to help solve specific problems. When a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other counselor is dialoging with you as he takes you through an imagery experience, the process is called “Interactive Guided Mental Imagery.”

Most people think of mental imagery as “visualizing success” or “seeing the cancer disappear as the hungry white blood cells devour the cancer.” Imagery is so much more than that.

There is no one who cannot utilize mental imagery, although, for 30 years, I have periodically heard, “I can't visualize. I've tried before.” The fact is that imagery is one of our brain-mind's core ongoing functions, the others being: thinking, perceiving, and feeling. If I ask you to describe your house, your car, or your partner, you will have no difficulty. “That” is mental imagery at work, in everyday life. With reassurance and education, virtually everyone can take the natural function, called “mental imagery,” focus that energy in a powerful way, and change physiology as well as mental states.

As a clinician, it's my job to find out if a person is primarily visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Many people are a mix, and may be equally visual and auditory. Once I know the dominant sensory modality of an individual, we work with interactive guided mental imagery using their primary sensory modality, which allows the process to become effortless.

Before diving into the details of cancer imagery techniques, let me say a few words about my experience in this area. For many years, I served as the imagery consultant on the tumor boards of Mercy Hospital and Scripps Encinitas Hospital. Using mental imagery, I worked with a 40 year-old woman with metastatic ovarian cancer, who was told she had 4 months to live. While our work in mental imagery was part of her “total health program,” she did live for 4 years longer than she was supposed to. On many occasions, it was my strong impression that mental imagery assisted in both length of cancer survival and quality of life. One woman had cancer throughout her entire right lung and was given one or two weeks to live. Six months later, without chemotherapy, there was not a trace of cancer in her body. There were clearly miraculous experiences going on in her life that were part of her cure. While most doctors working with imagery and other mind-body techniques have seen many “mind-body miracles,” it is very important to understand that practicing “perfect imagery” is no guarantee of survival. We all die.

If a cancer patient is working with me, and proceeds on a terminal course, it is essential that I convey to her that:

1) cancer is not her fault,

2) progression of the cancer is not her fault,

3) cancer progression is not caused by a lack of skillful imagery or positive thinking. I work with techniques that improve quality of life, provide hope and peace, and increase the odds of survival.

I have not done a double-blind study to prove that imagery increases the odds of survival. However, there is a great deal of research on mental imagery that is impressive. Inge Corless, RN, Ph.D., did a research study in which the subjects were asked to visualize increasing the number of a particular kind of white blood cell, called a “neutrophil.” The results were strongly positive, which means that, not only can imagery affect physiology (for better or for worse), imagery can be used in highly specific ways.

About a decade after Simonton's breakthrough work, Dr. Bernie Siegel, Yale surgeon, wrote, “Love, Medicine, and Miracles,” much of which dealt with mental imagery as well as the power of belief and meaning. Eventually, he set up an outpatient cancer center, called ECaP (Exceptional Cancer Patients), which taught people mental imagery along with other mind-body approaches.

There is a lot of politics surrounding cancer treatment. At the same time that Dr. Simonton was blacklisted by the American Cancer Society, I was the first medical doctor invited to speak about mental imagery at the San Diego Branch of the American Cancer Society. I taught women with breast cancer how to begin tapping the power of imagery.

Different Imageries

Simonton's “Attack Imagery” was the beginning, but it is only one of many different kinds of imageries to assist with cancer. Here are other time-tested cancer imageries:


Some people do not like violent imagery techniques, such as picturing white blood cells as piranha fish that tear up and eat cancer. These people are more comfortable imaging the cancer cells dissolving in white light, or being carried out of the body in a loving way by tiny angels.

Inner Advisor

Picture yourself in a setting in nature, and wait until a “wise being” approaches you: man, woman, angel, or even an animal. This being is called your “Inner Advisor” and s/he is an embodiment of peace, love, power, wisdom, and information. You can dialogue with your inner advisor and can obtain specific advise about cancer or any aspect of your life. The inner advisor may communicate with you in symbolic ways also.

Symbolic Imagery

One of the most powerful ways to deal with cancer, or any problem or illness is through symbolic imageries. Here is how you would begin this process:

Get in touch with your entire experience of cancer, including all the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Imagine you have a volume control dial. Turn up the volume on your cancer experience, and then allow an image to emerge that represents the entire “cancer experience.” The symbol can be anything, anyone, and can be alive or inanimate. If you are not used to practicing imagery, you may think the symbol is foolish. Try to set aside doubt for now. This method has been used successfully for decades for countless problems.

In your dialogue with the “symbol of cancer” ask it: “Who are you? What do you want from me? What do you need from me? Is there anything you want to teach me? Are you here to protect me from anything?” You are going to have strong emotions about the symbol of illness. Tell the symbol how you feel about it. Tell it everything you feel.

With time and practice this technique evolves over time, and as the process deepens, the form of the symbol of cancer will almost always change. For greater detail about this technique, which was developed by Martin Rossman, M.D., and Rachel Remen, M.D., go to

Goals of Cancer Support

It is not the goal of mental imagery to convince the cancer patient that they will be cured by gaining mastery of this powerful modality, although almost all clinicians with a great deal of experience with cancer and mental imagery have witnessed remarkable healings. Here are the goals of the doctor or clinician:

1. Facilitate the expression of feelings. The day a person is diagnosed with cancer is a day of devastation. There is no correct way to respond to hearing about a cancer diagnosis. There is only “your” way.

2. Inspire hope. To quote Dr. Bernie Siegel, “There is no false hope. There is only false no hope.” The moment a patient feels really safe with a doctor is the moment that the healing relationship begins to lead to healing.

3. Allow denial. Doctors generally like to “be realistic,” and they may consider optimism to be unrealistic. The fact is that, with all challenges, optimists do better. Whether or not optimists are more realistic is irrelevant. At times, it is useful to allow your patient to spend time in profound denial. There are times when denial is a useful strategy for both body and mind. For example, when someone has their first heart attack, denial can be lifesaving. Telling yourself, “There is no chance that this heart attack will kill me” is often a good strategy for survival . . . as long as you follow medical advice.

4. Help the patient in making decisions. She is overwhelmed with the number of decisions to be made when diagnosed with cancer, and she will need help making decisions throughout her struggle with cancer.

5. Help find the Center, the Inner Solid Ground. The cancer patient will most likely lose her center at the time of diagnosis. She may feel as if she is sinking in quicksand, and so, she needs a lot of help to find her core again.

6. Decrease stress and bring peace of mind. Decreasing stress boosts the immune system, so that it is better able to kill cancer cells.

7. Look at cancer as an opportunity to reexamine your sense of purpose and meaning. As a clinician, timing is everything. During the first week after a cancer diagnosis, I am not likely to talk about meaning.

8. Help access and strengthen the mind-body connection through mental imagery to accelerate healing, decrease pain, and decrease the enormous fear associated with diagnostic procedures and treatment.

9. Don't just focus on treating cancer. Deal with bite-size issues. Deal with pain. Mental imagery can cut pain, including the worst cancer pain, by 50% or more.

10. Encourage the cancer patient to not buy into death sentences handed down by many medical doctors. It is common for a doctor to say things like, “You have six months to live (or any other figure). Your doctor absolutely cannot predict how long you will live, but many patients will die on schedule…partially to please their doctor. I worked with a woman whose healthy 70-year-old husband saw a doctor for a routine checkup. The doctor diagnosed him with cancer and told him he had 3 months to live. This man, who had been active, came home, went to bed, and was dead in 3 months.

11. Delete shame and guilt from your heart and mind. These are destructive ways of responding to anything, but especially severe illness. The New Age helped transform consciousness, but New Age Guilt ruined a lot of lives. Many people felt (and still do feel) that, if they had succeeded with positive thinking and positive mental imagery, they would not be sick. They blame themselves at a time when they need unconditional love, and not self-condemnation. We can be our worst enemies. If you have cancer, take responsibility for what you can do to improve your situation and to accelerate healing. But, don't blame yourself for having cancer. Doctors have only scratched the surface about why people get cancer and other serious illnesses. There are so many factors that we do not understand. There are invisible mental, physical, and spiritual issues that play a role in the development of cancer.

Aspire to find peace in your healing as well as lessons in your healing journey. You must become your own doctor. I consider mind-body techniques, such as mental imagery, to be essential tools in dealing with cancer. Find out for yourself what heals your body, mind, and spirit. Surround yourself with positive, supportive, loving, nonjudgmental people. Create a total healing environment.

David Gersten, M.D. practices transpersonal psychiatry, interactive guided imagery, and nutritional medicine out of his Encinitas office and can be reached at 760-633-3063. Please feel free to access 800 on-lines pages about mental imagery at Access 1,000 on-line pages about holistic health, amino acids and nutritional therapy at www.


Dear Louise

Dear Louise,

First of all, many thanks to you for your books. I use your affirmations all the time. In one book, you mentioned having a “checklist” for starting and leading a discussion/self-help group. Could you print this list in your next column? My friends and I want to do this.

— W.H., Liechtenstein

Dear W.H.,

Thank you. Many people have started small weekly study groups with their friends using my book You Can Heal Your Life, and have had great success in improving the quality of their lives. I support you in your efforts to share the message of self love and healing with others. Here are a few tips for running a support and/or study group:

1. Go slowly. Use only one chapter of the book per week, less if there is a lot of discussion. Have each member of the group read one page aloud, and then open the discussion for sharing.

2. Create a safe, nurturing environment for your group. When one person is speaking, there are to be no interruptions or cross talk.

3. Keep an open, nonjudgmental mind. Be certain that everyone understands that anything that is said is strictly confidential. People must feel safe.

4. Do not take breaks; it tends to dissipate the energy. Meetings generally last about two hours.

5. Tell the group members that their homework for the week is to read the next chapter and see how it applies to their lives. Open the next week with this discussion.

6. “A love offering” can be accepted in order to cover expenses.


Dear Louise,

I have had two chronic problems, and I would love to hear your opinion about their emotional and/or spiritual causes. First, after 20 years of intestinal problems (gas, bloating, diarrhea, colitis), I found a wonderful holistic practitioner and we discovered that I was lactose intolerant. I have been symptom free until recently. I am a single working mother of two children, two seriously ill parents, and a seriously ill boss. I know that stress can relate to colitis, but there must be an underlying emotional pattern that causes this lifelong problem.

Second, I am overweight. I exercise regularly, eat a low-fat diet, and watch my blood pressure and cholesterol because heart disease runs in my family. My family of origin includes a lot of alcoholics (which I am not) and compulsive eaters (which I am). I heard recently about insulin resistance and read that chronic digestive trouble and food allergies are also symptomatic. What do you know about insulin resistance?

Thanks for all you do and the loving light you beam on us all.

— K.E., Palm Beach, FL

Dear K.E.,

You have so much on your plate, and I feel that this has been true for most of your life. It is hard for you to “stomach and digest” all that is going on. Even though you try your best, it is impossible for you to heal your family or your boss. No matter how sick you get, that will not help them get well. The little child in you is still trying to make everything better. We are all under the law of our own consciousness, which means that we all create our own lives by the way we choose to think and believe. Your parents may be ready to leave the planet, and serious illness is a socially acceptable way to go.

Yes, it is true, on a physical level, that insulin resistance can contribute to chronic digestive trouble. It is good to work with a health professional on that. However, you need to forgive the past in order to move on. Please read Chapter 7 of You Can Heal Your Life. Study it daily for a month. Do the exercises several times. The answers you seek are in this chapter. You must be committed to doing this work on yourself in order to have the entire Universe unfold before you. Everything you desire is waiting for you. You really are worth it! Affirmations to use include: I HAVE HIGH REGARD AND RESPECT FOR MYSELF. I SUPPORT AND LOVE MYSELF UNCONDITIONALLY. AS A RESULT, I AM SAFE TO EXPRESS ALL THAT I AM!

Louise L. Hay is a metaphysical teacher and the bestselling author of numerous books, including You Can Heal Your Life , Empowering Women, and I Can Do It! . Subscribe to the Louise Hay Newsletter! Call for a Free Issue: (800) 654-5126. Questions for Louise? Write to: Dear Louise Column, c/o Hay House, Inc., P.O. Box 5100, Carlsbad, CA 92018-5100 (letters may be edited for length and clarity). Visit Louise and Hay House at: or