Does Positive Thinking Have Power to Cure Cancer?

Sweat Lodge Tragedy: The Fast Rise and Fall of a Self-Help GuruYavapai County Sheriff Office
The sweat lodge used in a retreat led by James Ray where three people died.

For years, self-help guru James Ray, the best-selling author and one of the stars of the mega-successful book and DVD "The Secret," has preached that you can fix your body through the power of positive thinking.

"Each of us have cancerous cells in our body," he said in the "The Secret." "Some of us activate them, some of us don't."

He holds himself up as exhibit A of this sort of mind-body healing. He claims to have willed himself to be free of illness.

"I haven't had a cold in 10 years," he said. "If you keep your energy high and immune system pumped, I'm telling you I haven't had a cold in a decade."

Think Yourself HealthyPlay
Think Yourself Healthy

Ray preaches the mind-body connection, but a police search of his hotel room following three deaths at an Arizona sweat lodge he ran turned up what may be the actual source of his robust appearance: a suitcase full of prescription drugs including steroids. Ray has said that he needed the steroids for a medical condition.

Ray is scheduled to go to trial next month on manslaughter charges for the three sweat lodge deaths. He has pleaded not guilty.

Ray's legal problems are the latest challenge to the mantra of positive thinking as a cure for what ails you.

Just a year ago, however, the message Ray preached was a compelling one. So compelling that tennis pro Trent Aaron took notice during a painful time in his life. Aaron suffered a surfing accident that damaged his spine and left him with painful sciatica.

"I had four physicians tell me that 'You'll never play professional tennis again,'" he said. "Five minutes into playing tennis, I would fall down, the sciatica was so bad."

Eager for relief, Aaron plunked down thousands of dollars to attend James Ray's seminars. "[I] started just gathering a vision of myself playing tennis again."

Today Aaron is back on the court, a picture of health. He credits Ray with so much of his success he even appeared in one of Ray's promotional videos.

The video shows a healed Aaron. He and Ray claim he wasn't merely healed by faith, but by the science of quantum physics -- the laws that govern the behavior of subatomic particles.

"The Secret" describes a healing strategy purporting to draw on what is referred to as quantum physics, although Ray -- a junior-college dropout with a background in telemarketing -- for one, has no background in formal science.

"Everything flows where attention grows," Ray says in his DVD. "Everything is energy."

Shanna Bowens has followed Ray for years. "I was really drawn to his way of explaining quantum physics," she said. "...We have energy and we are energy. I mean, we, we have warmth."

'Everything Is Energy'

It's a trendy idea, advanced by other teachers like Michael Bernard Beckwith, founder of the Agape Spiritual Center in Los Angeles, and who appeared alongside Ray in "The Secret."

"I've seen kidneys regenerated. I've seen cancer dissolved. I've seen eye sight improve and come back," Beckwith claims in "The Secret."

The movie features another self-help author, Greg Braden, who claims to have made his own bladder cancer disappear by imagining he was already healed. "That quality of feeling is what triggered that powerful electrical and magnetic field in our body," he says in the movie.

Sound too good to be true? Braden doesn't think so. He said all we need is to look at the facts. "If we look at the data, look at the records where the healings are recorded -- video records of cancers healing in less than three minutes and we can see it in real time," he said.

Sounds great, but author Barbara Ehrenreich, who has a PhD in cellular immunology, isn't buying it.

"That's crazy," said Ehrenreich, author of "Nickel and Dimed." "There is no reason on earth that you could cure your own diseases through some quantum effect of your thoughts. It's not possible."

Ehrenreich said there was no evidence to prove that positive thinking or quantum mechanics could cure oneself of anything.

Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. She said she was bombarded with messages that argued her attitude was linked to her prognosis.

She researched the supposed connection between positive attitude and cancer survival during her own bout with breast cancer.

Ehrenreich used her findings to author "Brightsided," a book criticizing the self-help movement.

"Studies pretty much put to rest the idea that a positive attitude has any effect on recovery from breast cancer, lung cancer, and neck cancer," she said. "There are studies that will even show that pessimism, or a somewhat more negative and critical view of the world, is better in terms of being able to cope."

Is Positive Thinking a Bad Thing?

Ehrenreich conceded that science has a lot to learn about the so-called mind-body connection. However, she and other critics warn that relying solely on positive thinking can be damaging and dangerous.

Beckwith said that it is not simply positive thinking he and other self-help healers are promoting. "We advocate people to develop the right condition within themselves, which is prayer, meditation, exercise, proper diet, and checking in on yourself," he said.

Like many gurus who have appeared in "The Secret," Beckwith backs away from a strict interpretation of the power of positive thinking, dubbed "The Law of Attraction" in the movie.

Beckwith said that his intent is not to sell the idea that you can get whatever you want by thinking about it.

"Having a vision is one of the first stages," he said. "It's not magical thinking. You have to walk in that direction."

This latest presentation of the Beckwith's ideas seems to stray from the message "The Secret" heralds, that thinking in a positive way is the sole means to getting what you want.

Here Beckwith is saying first people think, and then act. "'The Secret,' as the movie, I think was an entry level into this way of thinking," he said.

On closer inspection, the same dialed-down language should be used to describe Trent Aaron's "miracle cure:" James Ray may have fixed his attitude, but it took four surgeries to fix Aaron's back.

According to Aaron, "It was the thinking that led me to the doctor, that led me to the idea that I could be healed and play tennis again," he said.