Understand the Symptoms

By Brendan Kelly, acupuncturist and herbalist

One central idea in Chinese medicine is that it’s fundamentally important, for both practitioner and patient, to try to understand what symptoms are trying to tell us. Rather than viewing symptoms such as cancer as “bad” or something to be gotten rid of, the classical Chinese medical view is to appreciate that symptoms are trying to help us understand that something is out of balance.

An unfortunate example of this effort to simply get rid of symptoms without addressing their underlying cause is the language that we use to describe different treatment processes.  For example, we talk about the war on various diseases, including cancer. While the phrase may be used with the best of intentions, attempting to rally support and create a sense of urgency, it is also a reflection of a common approach to the issue. When we declare war on cancer, we are in essence declaring war on the people who have cancer and ultimately declaring war on ourselves.

In my clinical experience treating people with cancer, a much more long-lasting approach is to declare peace. This is not to imply that cancer is not a serious diagnosis, but rather that declaring war on the inner condition of an individual is not likely to create balance and harmony. And it is very possible to achieve peace and lasting well-being, even with a significant western diagnosis, if we can understand what the symptoms are saying, and are willing to make the necessary changes.

In applying Chinese medical thinking to the diagnosis of cancer, my clinical experience indicates that part of the issue is extreme heat. To understand what Chinese medicine means by heat, think of a very hot summer day. Now imagine that you are outside in an unshaded area for several hours during the peak of the heat, without wearing a hat or any protection from the sun. Imagine how uncomfortable this would feel, and then imagine that this is the condition you experience internally to various degrees all day, everyday.

Left untreated, this heat can not only cause problems with the organs, but also affect the functioning of the cells. In taking a very general look at the western medical view of cancer, it is an over proliferation of unhealthy cells. This corresponds closely to the Chinese idea that heat not only causes over activity (the over proliferation) but pathology as well (the unhealthy cells).

While everyone is different, including everyone with a cancer diagnosis, there are obvious interrelated factors that contribute to heat. The first is how we live. We as individuals and we as a culture have become so busy— at work and at home—that it has literally become pathological. This over activity is over stimulating our internal organs, which in turn over stimulates the activity in our cells. It is not an exaggeration to say that the level of mental and physical activity that many of us consider normal or even healthy is helping to create the internal conditions for diseases like cancer to exist.  So what is this trying to tell us? Slow down and do less.

A second significant issue is the food we eat.  Again, what is considered normal, or perhaps even progress, is in fact often pathological. The amount of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers that are applied to much of the food consumed in this country is another major contributor to sickness. When coupled with the fundamental alteration that is occurring through genetic modification, a basic source of our strength and well-being—namely the food is eat—has been deeply compromised.

When we encounter toxins, for example the vast array of agricultural chemical, our organs work to clear them from our body. By continuously exposing ourselves to toxicity through the food we eat, we are requiring our organs to work overtime. As when we are overly busy at home and at work, this over activity again creates heat.  And what is cancer? An over proliferation of unhealthy cells.  And what is a basic cause of this unhealthy overgrowth? Heat.

So what can we learn from the issues with the food we eat? Living a natural life, including eating natural food, is fundamental to well-being, Good food, naturally and organically grown and raised, can be a source of strength and well-being, and the less our organs and our cells need to detoxify, the healthier we can be.

Even with potentially life threatening conditions, it is possible to understand what symptoms are trying to tell us. This process of paying attention to the issues underlying our symptoms makes it possible to find a deep and lasting sense of well being.

copyright by Brendan Kelly,  2013

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