The Unity of Mind, Body, and Spirit: A Five Element View of Cancer
The following is a response to the feature article in this issue by Martin L. Rossman, MD (Rossman ML.
Fighting for Health. Advances in Mind-Body Medicine. 2003;19(2);6-7).
My feeling is that cancer is caused by a constellation of factors coalescing at a single
point within a person‘s body, mind, and spirit. These factors may be physical (food, water,
pollutants), genetic (family history), emotional (anger, depression, fears), spiritual (losing touch
with the divine essence within us), and/or the effects of past and present karma.
People respond to cancer with a multitude of emotions, the most common being anger,
fear, denial, and /or resignation. People also choose to treat their cancers in different ways, with
the most widely used being the most aggressive, which is reflective of the human condition in
the world today. To many people, the world is a hostile place—one where killing and suffering
are commonplace, and the overriding philosophy is "might makes right". Certainly there are
people who believe in and practice non-violence, and pursue peaceful means to deal with conflict
and aggression. Lao Tzu speaks about recognizing and respecting one‘s foe, and not allowing the
enemy to win by causing one to act against his or her nature. Does one accept or resign him- or
herself to cancer, and does our immune system know the difference between acceptance and
resignation? Resignation is when the person feels like a victim of his or her illness, whereas
acceptance is the understanding of the basic reality of the situation. Acceptance is not a passive
surrendering, but rather an act of taking responsibility; it is not blaming oneself for having the
disease, but working energetically to restore one‘s system to balance.
People are at different points on the path to greater awareness and consciousness. There
are different treatments that may be appropriate for different people at various stages of the
disease process. I believe there is a disconnect that occurs when a person uses a treatment
modality that does not resonate with who he or she is. Ultimately, it is our immune system that
controls and eliminates the malignant growths. Our job, as physicians, is to help patients find the
key treatment that will ignite their immune system and successfully bring them into a state of
balance. Victor Frankl said, "Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as
long as he can see a meaning in it".
Clearly, many patients respond to the aggressive, violent, search-and-destroy imagery of
Western medicine, while others relate to the gift of the disease and derive meaning and strength
from it. Western medicine and culture perceive events as good or bad, black or white, win or
lose. Eastern medicine and culture see events as a balance between these extremes, as an ever-
changing dance of yin and yang, where one pole does not and cannot exist without the other. In
Classical Five-Element Acupuncture, as taught by my teacher, Professor Jack Worsley, we look
for what is appropriate for that person with that disease at that time, knowing full well that all
three factors are constantly in flux.
As a student, practitioner, and teacher of Classical Five-Element Acupuncture for more
than 25 years, I believe that the concept of the Wood element, as often related tot the growth of
cancer, needs to be placed in the wider context of the full Five-Element System. Cancer, and for
that matter any disease affecting body, mind, and spirit, can have at its root an imbalance in any
of the five elements. One way to illustrate this is through the Sheng cycle, also called the "law of
mother-child" or the "creative cycle of the five elements". In this circle, each preceding element
supports, nourishes, and creates the following element. Because it is a circle, we can begin at any
point; so let us look at the mother of Wood—the element Water. Water is about flow and
washing away impurities and pollutants.
The "Kidney Official" within the Water Element provides the ancestral energy and
patterns of inheritance for our cellular structures. One can certainly see how cancers could arise
if this element was out of balance. Pollutants would build up and create a toxic environment,
and/or faulty genetic information would be passed on. Water feeds Wood which, as stated by Dr.
Rossman, is about new growth, new beginnings, and creative energy. The Wood element
encompasses the Gall Bladder Official, which is in charge of decision-making, and the Liver
Official, which is in charge of planning and organizing. Certainly if these functions go awry, one
can see how cancer could ensue. The aggressive nature of the Wood element is best seen as the
intensity of springtime growth. Nothing can stop the tenacity, force, and resilience of a tiny
sprout pushing up and breaking through the earth.
Wood is the mother of Fire, the element connected mostly to love, passion, warmth, and
intimacy—what you allow into your being, and what you keep out. The Small Intestine Official
separates the pure from the impure. The Heart Official functions as the ultimate leader, the
"Supreme Controller". Fire deals with the development of one‘s true self, and cancer is the out-
of-control overgrowth of the inauthentic self. Clearly one can see how this element, when out of
balance, could give rise to aberrant growths. If the Supreme Controller is sick, the entire
"kingdom" of the body malfunctions. If the Small Intestine Official is ill, the separation of pure
from impure ceases to function, so the impure is kept instead of being discarded. If the "Heart
Protector" is out of balance, thus not being able to discriminate what needs to be kept outside the
inner sanctum, one can see how this invasion of body, mind, and spirit can provide the seeds of a
Out of the ashes of Fire, Earth is created. Earth is about nurturing—caring for one‘s self,
one‘s family, and one‘s planet. Cancer takes the nurturing away from the host and directs all the
resources to itself, in essence starving the person to death. An Earth imbalance, a misdirection of
that nurturing energy, can cause a few miniscule cancer cells to multiply and overwhelm the host
like a landslide.
Out of the rich, voluminous depths of the Earth comes the precious element Metal which,
on one level, deals with divine inspiration and our divine essence through the Lung Official; and
on another level, deals with the removal of rubbish, waste, and garbage through the Large
Intestine Official. Just think of how fertile the ground would be for the development of cancer if
the garbage was not removed constantly from our system, and if our cells were bathed in retained
toxins. Imagine the grief inherent in people with a Metal imbalance, having lost their connection
to the divine, having lost inspiration. Imagine how such spiritual emptiness can foster the growth
of a cancer to fill the void. The element Metal is the creator of Water. This is envisioned as the
minerals in the earth creating the river bottom to hold the water. Thus the circle is completed.
Each person is unique in body, mind, and spirit, as is the evolution of their disease
process. The power and beauty of the Five-Element System is in recognizing this uniqueness,
responding to it, and treating diseases accordingly.
[Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, Summer 2003, VOL. 19, NO. 2]