Julie K. Silver, MD is a renowned expert in the medical field of physiatry – physical medicine and rehabilitation. An assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Silver is also on the medical staff at Brigham and Women's, Massachusetts General, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospitals in Boston. Dr. Silver, herself a breast cancer survivor, also wrote After Cancer Treatment: Heal Faster, Better, Stronger – recognized as a top health book for 2006 by Library Journal. This month, Dr. Silver introduces her new book, Super Healing: The Clinically Proven Plan to Maximize Recovery From Illness or Injury. In it she explains our natural healing potential, how to use both the mind and body to master the recovery process, and how to plan a speedy return to optimal health.
Dr. Silver, you are a physiatrist. What kind of patients can you help?
I am a rehabilitation doctor. I treat people who are in need of healing; they make up a variety – sports injuries, car accidents, chronic pain, but I have a special interest in cancer survivors. This interest began after I went through cancer treatment and realized how physically devastating it can be. I became a physiatrist because I liked the idea of helping people to physically recover as well as possible. Much of my work focuses on the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. I find them fascinating. Physiatrists are all over the country, but we’re a small specialty, and are not easily accessible to everyone. Many don’t know about physiatrists.
In Super Healing you delve into the Healing Zone. Would you explain what the Healing Zone is?
The Healing Zone is a term I use to describe the period of time that people are capable of further physical recovery. It may be days, weeks, months, or even years. Practically everyone is able to reach a higher level of health status — especially if they’ve been ill or injured or are living with a chronic condition. In this book, I included a lot of stories of real people who have been through difficult health challenges and have had “remarkable recoveries.” Their stories, combined with a scientific plan to heal, can help others to have their own remarkable recovery.
You yourself spent more than two years in the Healing Zone recovering from breast cancer treatment.
My recovery from breast cancer, after the chemo, took about three years, though a lot of my healing occurred in the first year. It was very traumatic – I was just 38 years old and had been in terrific health. After cancer treatment, I was exhausted, weak, and in pain. This experience certainly gave me some personal insights that I now use along with professional expertise to help and understand patients in a new way.
In 2003, as a young mother with three children at home, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My body endured surgery and chemo and I became very sick – cancer treatment is incredibly toxic. After my chemotherapy ended, I realized that there just wasn’t any information available to the public about how to heal better faster.
I began to focus my writing on this subject. I believe from both a professional and personal standpoint that healing better can be applied to any illness. Sometimes patients hear about the “new normal” in what the body is able to do, because of physical limitations. I tell patients though, not to accept this before “super healing.” The body will work to heal itself, but helping to move it along can make a huge difference in the final outcome.
You discuss the alleviation of pain, stating that it is usually treated using a combination approach. Though we dread pain, is it ever good for us?
Pain is part of the voice of your body, pointing out why and where. The message it carries is incredibly useful. However, it isn’t healthy to suffer needlessly; so we identify and treat it.
It’s not masking the pain. If left untreated, pain can wear you down, leaving you unable to concentrate. This is not useful. Also, unrelenting pain inhibits healing.
It is important that those with pain not wait until the last minute. Before it gets out of control, one should take his medication or treatment earlier in the day. This is much more effective.
Dr. Silver, you have an undergraduate degree in food biochemistry and a chapter regarding foods in Super Healing. Which foods do you promote for optimal recovery?
I emphasize eating regularly — five times a day. Doing so prevents a low in blood sugar levels, and promotes constant fueling of the body with food helping you heal. What you might have done in the past — skip breakfast or use coffee as an afternoon pick me up — won’t work now. There’s much less slack given at this point.
In Super Healing, I have a section titled “Eating to Improve Mood.” What you eat or avoid can actually boost your mood, making you feel better. Besides eating regularly, try avoiding alcohol, limiting caffeine, and steering clear of refined sugar and simple carbs like sweets, crackers, and chips.
The public needs to pay more attention to diet, but certainly the information is confusing about what helps and what doesn’t. In every chapter of my book, Super Healing, I synthesized the research and explained what we know scientifically about topics such as diet and physical recovery. Research shows that many things contribute to a healthy diet. Basic principles should be adhered to: Proteins are necessary to repair cells; fruits and vegetables boost the immune system; complex carbohydrates provide energy.
People should watch their calories to gain or lose weight — depending on their situation.
Since recovering from breast cancer, how do you live differently than before the cancer?
The effect is absolutely different. I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect and make changes. By trying to practice what I preach, I sleep, eat, and exercise well. I’m not perfect, though! That’s one of the things that I emphasize in Super Healing — that you don’t have to be perfect to heal well, you just need a plan and to follow it the best you can.
Stress is unavoidable. What are its effects on the body?
Stress causes the release of cortisol, which leads to physical problems, depressing the immune system, allowing susceptibility to illnesses and infections, heart disease, and heart attacks. Thousands of scientific articles have been written about this.
Anyone ill or injured is under a lot of stress. What’s important is to try to manage it through exercise, sleeping well, diet, and using mind-body techniques — a love connection, meditation, or prayer. This will help the healing.
Also, know that it is really chronic stress which is the problem. If you had a bad day at work, that’s okay. Get up the next morning and get back on track.
During your time eliminating your own cancer, you asked others to pray for you at 9PM EST. What is the science behind prayer?
Prayer for super healing is good medicine, whether you believe in divine intervention, meditating, or just chemical reactions taking place. Science shows spirituality helps people recover. It promotes both physical and emotional healing.
I leave it to the patient to make up his own mind regarding how he views prayer, but science shows that something physical is happening.
The public is beginning to understand that there is a real connection between the mind and the body. Will the mind, if properly induced, help heal the body?
Chemical reactions occur in the body when we meditate, inducing progressive muscle relaxation and a calming of the mind.
Loving relationships are really interesting because loving relationships lead to overall better health. There is less written about the correlation between loving relationships and how they aid recovery. In Super Healing, I tell the story of David Eustace, a kindergarten child who had a remarkable recovery after being hit by a car and receiving a leg amputation. David’s parents stayed by his bedside. We all need this — to be showered with love and attention, but we as patients withdraw, finding it hard to connect. The scientific studies are really fascinating about how love and connections facilitate physical healing. I thoroughly enjoyed writing this chapter.
During my cancer, I was bald, really tired, and didn’t feel like connecting; it was an effort I had to work at. To feel love and love others back is difficult when you’re not feeling well.
In your mind, as a breast cancer survivor, is there anything else you wish you would have done to help yourself heal?
Yes, I wish I had been more willing to accept help. When recovering, I wasn’t specific about how others could nurture me. I’ve always been the type of person who takes care of things when they need to be done. People are willing but need direction; bringing meals is helpful but friends and family don’t know what to do beyond this. I would have given myself more time and energy to heal, if I had accepted the help of others.
Sometimes friends and family feel that they’re stepping on toes?
Yes, I should have issued an invitation. It’s hard to accept being nurtured. My friends were incredibly kind but also cautious — not wanting to step on my toes. I appreciated that, and I now realize that I should have accepted more help and been more specific about what I needed help with.
How long have you been cancer-free?
I’ve been cancer-free for four years. Every year that passes, I say “Whew! Another year passed!” I love getting older.
Do you have any family history of breast cancer?
No, I don’t. I’ve always lived what I consider a healthy life, but there’s always room to improve.
My children recently published a book, Our Mom is Getting Better. This is a book published by the American Cancer Society for children whose parents are going through cancer. My kids wrote about the healthy positive changes I instituted in our home — three veggies at every meal and family walks in the evening.
Recently, my son wrote an English essay titled “My Mom Sets the Table With Forks, Spoons, Knives, and Carrots!” I had to laugh about that, because it’s true.
Ha! I can visualize the carrot next to the knife. Dr. Silver, who is Super Healing written for?
Super Healing is for anyone who wants to take health to the next level. It’s for those suffering from any illness or injury, be it arthritis, a heart condition, a sports injury, a car accident, fibromyalgia, or cancer.
I provide positive and evidence-based information to empower patients, improving strength, endurance, and fatigue, while lessening pain. It is a place to start and a plan that will work at home. It’s very holistic and at the same time offers information about the latest and best health remedies available.
How many years of research did you spend preparing to write this book?
I’ve been in practice over a dozen years. Super Healing is the compilation of my life’s work.
There are many scientific studies, but patients typically have no access to them, or they don’t understand how to use the scientific information. In Super Healing, I’ve taken the best research and synthesized it into a plan for good use.
There’s also a lot of misinformation — myths, theories, pop psychology, out there. I aim to debunk this and actually share what works. For example, some people claim that they don’t need much sleep. That’s a myth. You need seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
Your body will work to heal itself, but with help, chances of optimal recovery will improve. Many people don’t know what to do to help the body along. Super Healing incorporates changes into life; these changes become good habits and then good health. These habits will not only facilitate optimal recovery but also protect the body in the future.