07 March 2016

The stress of cancer stress research

Even when you are a natural-born optimist, sometimes the predominant response to good news can be a feeling of regret.

Recent research coming out of my own hometown of Melbourne has claimed to be a medical breakthrough; one that the researchers are hoping will lead to new ways of treating cancer in a more holistic way.

My regret? Since day one of the Melbourne Cancer Support Group, that later grew into the Gawler Foundation, all of us involved encouraged our participants to take advantage of the approach that now, 35 years later, is being regarded as a breakthrough.

My regret? I really feel for all those people who were influenced by the medical hierarchy’s vehement opposition to this notion for so many years, and that collectively we failed to more skilfully bring about change earlier, meaning that many, many thousands of people did not get the full care they would have benefited from.

So this week we examine the research, the “breakthrough”, highlight some of the opposition, and do celebrate that at least for those affected by cancer in current time, there may be new hope; but first

      Thought for the day

The real voyage of discovery 
Consists not in seeking new landscapes 
But in having new eyes 

                    Marcel Proust

Transcript from The Couchman Report, ABC TV, 1988

Peter Couchman
If you were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, would you put your life in the hands of orthodox medicine and all that involves or would you go to someone like Ian Gawler – who won’t use drugs, who’s not trained, who’s not registered, but who can produce a lot of people for you who claim to have been cured by him?

Dr Paul Niselle, Medical Protection Society
On the one hand a very uncomfortable treatment that has a predictable chance of success; on the other hand you are being offered treatment that is much, much more comfortable, with grandiose claims for efficacy that cannot be supported.

Dr Ray Lowenthal, Oncologist
He lists his type of treatment as being quite non-toxic as opposed to medical treatments which he lists as toxic whereas some of the treatments which he offers have considerable potential for doing harm.

Dr John Zalcberg, Oncologist, Repatriation Hospital
To meditate, to relieve stress, to alter the immune system, is not going, I mean the evidence does not support the fact that that will lead to control of breast cancer, lung cancer or colon cancer.

Ian Gawler
Something very specific happens. Perhaps we haven’t got the explanation right, because we haven’t studied it enough, and perhaps meditation is working through some other mechanism.

Chronic stress accelerates the spread of cancer 
by Julia Medow,  The Age, Melbourne newspaper, 2016

Australian researchers have revealed in a study that could dramatically change the way people with the disease are treated.

For years, patients have suspected that high levels of stress may cause cancer and or accelerate its growth, but neither hypothesis has been proven by rigorous research showing how this might occur.

A team of researchers from Monash University have now shown that chronic, persistent stress in mice sets off physiological changes that cause cancer cells to move faster and spread to other parts of the body.

The team, led by Dr Erica Sloan and Dr Caroline Le, discovered that adrenaline – a neurotransmitter triggered by stress to increase alertness and rapid reaction to threat – has a downside for animals and people with cancer: it increases the number and size of lymphatic vessels in and around tumours, while also increasing the rate of fluid flow through these vessels. Both of these combine to increase the capacity of lymphatic "highways" to carry and spread tumour cells throughout the body.

"We found that chronic stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – better known as the 'fight-or-flight' response – to profoundly impact lymphatic function and the spread of cancer cells," said Dr Le of the study published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

"These findings demonstrate an instrumental role for stress ... and suggest that blocking the effects of stress to prevent cancer spread through lymphatic routes may provide a way to improve outcomes for patients with cancer."

The study also reported that a cohort of patients on drugs often used to treat anxiety and high blood pressure (beta blockers that block the actions of adrenaline) were less likely to have secondary cancer that had spread from its primary site.

A clinical trial is now underway at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to see if such a drug alters the course of breast cancer in people with the disease.

Dr Sloan said the mice in the study were restrained in a way to make them feel like they would not cope with their circumstances. This was done to mimic the way people feel if they are under significant stress brought on by caring for a sick relative without enough resources, for example. She said it was not designed to mimic an acute and temporary episode of stress such as being chased by a dog.

"What we're talking about is prolonged, ongoing situations where you can't cope," she said.

The mice who were stressed had a much higher rate of their cancer spreading, compared to control mice with cancer who were not put in stressful situations.

Stressed mice experienced more metastasis (cancer spreading from its original site) compared to otherwise healthy (control) mice. Source Le et al., Nature Communications.

Dr Sloan emphasised that cancer patients should not feel responsible for their own stress because it can be very difficult to control, especially when diagnosed with a serious illness. However, she is hoping the research will lead to new ways of treating cancer in a more holistic way that reduces stress as much as possible along the way. This could be done with drugs like beta blockers, as well as complementary therapies such as meditation or yoga.

Channel Nine TV News, 2 March 2016
Jane Treleaven explains how she felt stress played a major part in the onset of her cancer, and how learning meditation has made such a difference to her life. Jane is a cancer survivor.

Watch this lovely short piece : CLICK HERE

“Regrets, I’ve had a few… but then again, to few to mention… “

Remember the old Frank Sinatra song. Well, when I reflect on my years working with people affected by cancer, I have two. This is one of them… That for many years I seemed to have invoked hostility from the cancer hierarchy in response to the suggestion that stress needed to be taken seriously in cancer medicine, both as a causative agent and as an influence that would impair the capacity to recover.

So I do deeply regret that both personally and with all the good people at the Foundation, collectively we were unable many years ago to instigate the research that has just been published. I suspect that if we had, many people would be the better for it.

Let us hope that this new “breakthrough” research does in fact lead to better cancer management in the mainstream and that many people benefit.

As an aside, I have written to Professor John Zalcberg who appeared on The Couchman Show to ask how his position may have changed. Prof Zalcberg was the Director, Division of Cancer Medicine, at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre for 17 years prior to taking up the position of Professor of Cancer Research in the School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at Monash University in 2014. I have asked him if he knows of any current research, or planned research, that will examine the role of meditation in managing stress, given meditation is known to be highly effective as an antidote to stress and may be worth exploring along with the beta blockers.

Mind-Body Medicine and cancer

A volatile mix – stress, alcohol and cancer

You Can Conquer Cancer – where the role of stress in the onset of cancer is discussed, and the role of stress management for people diagnosed with cancer is presented, along with how to cut through the adverse affects of stress


  1. Dear Ian,

    thus is the way of the world! 'twas ever thus :)

    One note: an aspect of the Gawler approach that I feel is perhaps even more fundamental than the meditation, but which perhaps doesn't receive the same value or public acknowledgement: the opportunity for sufferers to talk with others have are having/have had the same experience. From my own experience (not of cancer, myself - although my father died of cancer - but of another condition), the therapeutic value of being able to talk with someone else, about one's illness, stress, lifestyle etc, who understands and inherently is 'safe' to talk to - well, this is gold, and I think predates the impulse to good health through diet, meditation etc. (you would also, I am sure, be familiar with the process of stuff coming up during meditation that needs talking through, as an essential component of healing).
    Best wishes
    Bradley Smith

  2. Hey Ian - your regret is very humble and altruistic but I think finding a way was a gargantuan task given the importance of heirachy in our often ridiculous society - you didn't invoke hostility, they generated it - I hope those "doctors" also now "regret" their definitive and authorative claims that will have hurt so many - human psychology can be truly amazing to observe in it's capacity for unnecessary destructiveness - "the emperors new clothes " is a story that just plays out over and over and over........

  3. Hi Ian, hindsight is always a funny thing but rather than feeling regret, you should focus on all the people you have managed to help in spite of such vehement resistance. There is only so much that one person can do, and you have done an enormous amount. I for one am very grateful. And I know there are many others out there who feel the same way. If it hadn't been you provoking the hostility of the medical profession, it would have been someone else. It was not you but their fear of all that they did/do being challenged by something that they had no experience of and that didn't fit the model within which they work. Let's just hope that now the message will be loud and clear and that we can pave the way to this work being adopted universally. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Jane

  4. yet again the medical model is going after a silver bullet (beta blockers) when the solution is literally in front of their noses (our breath).
    thanks for all the work you do Ian along with your wife Ruth and other staff at the Gawler Foundation. You HAVE saved many lives and added quality to countless more.

  5. In silence we find love and this day our miracle. My miracle continues and hope grows. The sincerest thanks from a german hospital where Australian medical blindness cannot kill me.

  6. It's a no brainer but always the need for empirical evidence. It is hard work to get the big boys to listen to anything and it all comes back to money! They could have helped millions and they could be doing so much with the trillions raised for cancer research around the world daily. ... But no it's not really on their agenda so to get them to listen to you is big call. You have done so much for people with cancer etc. Always be proud of your contribution as you watch the numb nuts come to the party slowly ever so slowly but surely. Thanks for everything, Sam

  7. Ian Gawler, you were always the first, the best, the most inspiring. When others build on your work and claim it, you know you've had positive influence. Thank you <3

  8. The world is a better place because of people like you Dr. Gawler, for all the people whose life you have contributed to improve by honestly sharing your knowledge, your research, your techniques, your skills..... I am grateful to you and for all the books you have written that can reach so many people. The way I see it, this so-called ‘’new breakthrough’’ is no promise that somehow, someday, ‘’medical leaders’’ will encourage doctors or other medical staff to sit with all patients to review their stress factors towards better cancer management and healing. There are too many medical protocols to cross and too many pharmaceutical companies involved in the medical arena. However, I do see ‘’mindfulness meditation’’ offered to hospital staff ... not yet to patients. But patients need to be willing to go one step further than medicine for healing and to participate in their healing process. When such patients meet doctors, some of these doctors become willing to go a bit beyond some protocols and to have unusual talks with their patients. These doctors may not be able to change the medical world around them, but they sure contribute to boost the morale of some patients and that matters. Well ..... I am happy to be me, I am happy to see inspiring people, and I am happy that these inspiring people including you Dr. Gawler do energize me to be the best that I can be and to expand in my own field. Thank you.