Joan Borysenko was a Harvard-trained cancer cell biologist when her father, suffering from leukemia and the ravaging side-effects of the drugs he was taking, leaped from a 36-story window.
For Borysenko, the tragedy was an awakening. “What I recognized was that I knew so much about cancer cells, but I had learned so little about people with cancer,” Borysenko said in a recent telephone interview.
Her father committed suicide in the mid-‘70s. In the years since, Borysenko has moved away from laboratory science and ventured further and further into the realm of the human mind and spirit.
In the ‘80s, she become a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of the Mind/Body Clinic at the New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston. Today she is an author and lecturer, living near Boulder, Colo., and traveling across the country to present workshops on topics such as “The Power of the Mind to Heal.”
She will appear Oct. 20-21 in Spokane, part of the St. Stephen’s Lecture Series. She will present two evening lectures and a day-long workshop.
Her work combines research data with advice on meditation and prayer. She frequently links emotional well-being to physical health.
“Through many years of working with people with stress-related problems, chronic illness, cancer and AIDS,” Borysenko writes, “I’ve come to believe that letting go of regrets, resentments and the tendency to be critical is at the very heart of physical, emotional and spiritual healing - not just from heart disease, but from any illness.”
She cites the following research:
In a study of 7,000 residents of Alameda County, Calif., women who had many social contacts, but reported feeling lonely, had a 2.4 times greater risk of developing uterine, breast and ovarian cancer than those who felt connected. Those who had fewer social contacts and also felt isolated had five times the risk of dying from these cancers.
In a study of Harvard students, researchers examined the levels of an antibody called sIgA in the students’ saliva. This antibody helps ward off tooth decay, colds and flu. The study found that students motivated primarily by a desire for friendship had higher levels of this antibody than those motivated primarily by a desire for power.
In studies of longevity, researchers have found that working more than 40 hours a week, regularly experiencing loneliness and getting less than eight hours of sleep a night correlate to rapid aging and premature death.
Says Borysenko, “We’re going to be redefining stress as a sense of isolation from ourselves and from each other.”
In her books and lectures, Borysenko advocates a combination of psychological and spiritual techniques.
She advises people to take time for solitude and prayer. Whether it’s a private meditation at home or a hike through the forest, Borysenko believes it’s the time alone that counts.
Borysenko, who was raised Jewish, practices an eclectic mix of Jewish, Christian and Buddhist rituals, and believes in prayer.
In her book, “The Power of the Mind to Heal,” Borysenko describes Dr. Randolph Byrd’s prayer research at San Francisco General Hospital.
Byrd, a cardiologist, examined the effect of prayer on 400 people admitted to the coronary intensive-care unit with a heart attack or a suspected heart attack. The patients were divided into groups receiving intensive care plus distant prayer and those receiving only intensive care. Neither the patients nor the staff knew which patients were being prayed for.
Byrd found that the prayed-for patients were less likely to develop congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema; they were five times less likely to require antibiotics; fewer needed to be put on ventilators and receive artificial respiration; and fewer developed pneumonia or had cardiac arrests.
Borysenko does not advise, however, jettisoning conventional medicine in favor of prayer.
“If God, or some Universal Force, created everything, why isn’t medicine also an answer to our prayers?” she asks. “For me, using both prayer and medicine poses no moral dilemma.”
Borysenko also advocates coping with life’s difficulties through a philosophy of spiritual optimism.
Spiritual optimists search for meaning in the midst of suffering, she says. Sometimes they simply embrace the mystery and say, “I may not understand why difficult things happen now, but they are a chance to grow in wisdom and in love.”
Exactly the path of Borysenko’s life in the years since her father’s death.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BORYSENKO EVENTS Joan Borysenko will speak at 7 p.m. Friday on “The Power of the Mind to Heal” and 7 p.m. Saturday on “Fire in the Soul: Crisis, Challenge and Spiritual Awakening” at the Masonic Temple, 1108 W. Riverside. Her workshop, “Exploring the Heart of Healing: Integrating Medicine, Science and the Spirit,” will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 5720 S. Perry. Tickets are $18 for a single lecture, $30 for both lectures, $80 for the workshop, and $105 for all three events. For more information call 448-2255.