Food for thought and the power of a story

William House, Retired GP; Chair of the BHMA

Published in JHH16.3 – The Real Food Issue

Food hardly featured at all in the medical curriculum when I trained in medicine. That was in the late 1960s. I hope it’s better now, but have we recognised the true breadth of food’s importance to us humans? Here is a story about the perhaps unexpected healing power of food.

Jenny (not her real name) was diagnosed three years ago with follicular (non-Hodgkin) lymphoma. She is a determined woman, a force to be reckoned with! But the disease was growing fast with widespread enlarged lymph nodes, swollen stomach and legs, weakness and tiredness. The haematologist told her they can help to control the condition, but not cure it. For her, this was a red rag to a bull, but she could see she needed help and agreed to chemotherapy. The proposed treatment was planned in a cycle of four doses by intravenous infusion at monthly intervals. During the weeks following the first dose it was obvious to Jenny that the disease was melting away and when she returned the next month for a check prior to the second dose she was very well and the disease was clearly retreating, but further treatment was delayed because of a low white cell count. At the next month’s check-up, there were no traces of the disease and the white cell count remained slightly low. The rest of the treatment cycle was cancelled. This happened between December and February 2016–2017. Today (September 2019) she remains very well and free from disease without having any further medical treatment. This is extremely unusual.

So where is the connection with food here? Jenny and I recently reminisced about her illness and some very interesting things emerged. Firstly, about her consultations with the haematology team she said:

I didn’t want to take on any information beyond what I had to accept: that is what was seen down the microscope. I rejected medical dogma about curability – I viewed it as an unhelpful story – and I made up my own story and I’m sticking to it through thick and thin! … I just knew I had to build a protective ring around my immune system.

Jenny’s ‘own story’ was inspired by a visit to a Reiki practitioner before her chemo started. He said the body’s frontline defences are very important and ‘we call them “Mum”, and mum goes around sweeping up messes’. ‘Of course!’, Jenny thought, ‘mum has slipped up and I must help her, then she may be able to cope on her own. This became her empowering story, which ultimately expressed itself mainly in the planning and preparation of meals – surely a crucial role for a ‘mum’! She was (and still is) very excited about this. Healthy, nourishing food along with some other healthy lifestyle changes would become the ‘protective ring’ around her immune system. She began reading widely especially about diet and health. One particular recipe book, good good food by ex-medic Sarah Raven, focuses on food and health in a very practical way. This became Jenny’s key reference work. She showed it to me. I counted 43 bookmarks in it!

So what is going on here? It is certainly a striking story. The impact of a single dose of chemotherapy was truly remarkable and we are all immensely grateful for that. But the medical specialists’ preoccupation with the disease and its technical treat[1]ment at the expense of engagement with the wider human self-healing potential of the patient is surely a missed opportunity. For Jenny, it is not so much the details of her new diet that became so important in her recovery, but rather the inspiration and positive empowerment that has come with it. The creation of an inspiring story leading to positive action has been her route towards that empowerment and healing. She believes that the medical profession too often misunderstands what helps patients most: they focus on the disease at the expense of the patient.

Interestingly, Jenny told me that at one of her subsequent hospital check-ups the haematologist admitted, when pressed, that they had seen a few long-term ‘remissions’ of follicular lymphoma. But he was reluctant to speak of these ‘remissions’ as cures, as if it was inconceivable that the will and empowerment of the patient could possibly complete the job that the medical treatment left not quite finished.

Of course, we are in the territory of holistic medicine, or rather, the lack of it. We are looking for what David Reilly calls ‘creative consulting’ seeking to liberate ‘the healing response’ (Reilly, 2001, 2002). It is a great credit to Jenny’s imagination and strength of character, and also to the Reiki practitioner’s inspiring story, that they were able to enhance the haema[1]tologists’ remarkable medicine. Surely this should be a lesson for the future.


  • Reilly D (2002) The Healing Shift Enquiry. Video. Available at: About.html (accessed 3 September 2019).
  • Reilly D (2001) Creative consulting: why aim for it? BMJ, 323. Available at: Suppl_S4/0110364 (accessed 3 September 2019)