Dr. Bernie Siegel's Prescription for Cancer Victims (and a Best-Seller): 'Patient, Heal Thyself'

updated 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Bernie Siegel's parents played a dirty trick on him. They didn't push him to study. They didn't urge him to excel. They left him alone. "I ended up working twice as hard as anyone else," he says, looking back on that early lesson in motivational theory. "They said that they trusted me." So while most of his friends in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn were out playing ball, Bernie dutifully hammered away at his books, a victim of that most unforgiving of all taskmasters, his own conscience.

Bernie Siegel, 54, an accomplished surgeon, a recognized authority in the field of advanced cancer and a celebrated teacher at Yale University Medical School, still feels that lash. His latest accomplishment is a book, Love, Medicine & Miracles (Harper & Row, $15.95), which has been on the bestseller list for more than 20 weeks and is creating a heated, if so far polite, medical controversy. In Miracles, Siegel advises people who are seriously ill to participate in their own cures—and holds out hope that they can practice such self-therapy successfully. He doesn't nag, boss or scold his patients or readers. He simply trusts them. It is much the same trick his parents played on him, and it has made Bernie Siegel rich and somewhat famous. And although the technique isn't new, he claims it has kept many, though not all, of his patients alive.

Siegel's book—both a faith-healing tract and a medical text—has struck a responsive chord among the public. There are currently more than 320,000 copies in print, his publisher has commissioned a second book, and Siege is besieged with offers to speak before private and professional groups. "People sense there is some other dimension to dealing with serious illness," he says, sitting in his New Haven, Conn, office, which is cluttered with hand-wrought cards and pictures from grateful patients. "I tell them, 'Love yourself.' If they smoke, I don't tell them not to smoke. I tell them, 'Love yourself.' If they eat sugar and fat, I don't tell them not to eat sugar and fat. I tell them, 'Love yourself.' "

Until 15 years ago, Siegel had a conventional and highly successful career treating cancer patients. "There I was, going along, thinking that medicine was some mechanical problem," he recalls. "Fix this. Replace that." He was, he says now, miserable. Life in the Woodbridge, Conn, home he shared with his wife, Bobbie, and their five children (none of whom, he notes meaningfully, have become doctors) was one of studied order, tension and, frequently, depression. "You know, medicine is a very tough thing," he says. "I mean, everyone is going to die. Sooner or later. That's a tough thing to face. I would yell and lose my temper and it was not pleasant. I was hurting." For a while, he debated giving up surgery in favor of psychiatry "to help people without cutting into them."

Instead, he settled on a less drastic compromise: He would remain a surgeon and try to humanize his medical practice. He dropped all formality in his office and insisted that patients call him Bernie. He faced his patients in the open by putting his desk in a corner of his office. He even shaved his head—a physical I.D. mark for the new Bernie Siegel. Today, he continues to operate about 10 times a week and insists on the complete concurrence of the patient throughout treatment.

But perhaps Siegel's most radical change was to inaugurate support groups of seriously ill cancer patients, who meet weekly. They are "not for everyone," he says. "Not everyone wants to live." In his view, some patients almost welcome death, do not resist and therefore die. But there are others—the "exceptional patients, the 15 to 20 percent who refuse to play the victim" and fight back. He calls them "Exceptional Cancer Patients," or ECaP, and they accept Bernie's premise that there is a fundamental link between disease and mental attitude.

At the weekly meetings of ECaP, the inevitable dread of cancer is smothered in affection. Patients weep and fall into each other's arms, and Bernie weeps with them. "Listen, I need hugs, too," he says. This may not be conventional medicine, but he insists that it lifts spirits and can even inspire cures that he calls miraculous. He cites several cases—people with seemingly incurable cancer who declared they would not submit to the disease and achieved full remission. "Traditional doctors say I'm a mystic," Bernie says. "I don't deny it."

There is some solid scientific evidence that attitude can be crucial in fighting disease. "You know the scene in the movie, the cliché, in which the doctor says, 'She needs the will to live'? Well, it's true. The immune system and the blood chemistries are different in patients who resist."

Nevertheless, Siegel has critics who worry that his approach wrongly shifts responsibility away from the doctor. "This puts a terrible burden on the patient," says Dr. Elizabeth Beautyman, an internist and hematologist at Manhattan's St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital. "There are a lot of diseases out there for which we do not know the causes. But there are people who take to theories like [Siegel's] because it makes them think that they have more control over their disease than they do. It is a form of denial."

Siegel shrugs off such criticism. "Attitude," he says, "is all-important." Still, life has a way of confounding everyone, and although Siegel says he is fulfilled these days, he hasn't been able to shake his cantankerous attitude completely. One recent afternoon, after getting stuck in traffic, he successively and vehemently lashed out at his wife, and at a waitress and a stranger. He can live with that. "Listen," he says, "I'm human." "He's always been," adds his wife, "different."

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