She wasn't the first to explore the link between mind and disease, but few practitioners have delved as deeply or successfully into the topic. Jeanne Achterberg was 32 when she read an article that described how oncologist Carl Simonton helped cancer patients fight malignancies not just by using medicine but also by drawing on their emotional reserves and the support of other patients. Achterberg, now 59, was so taken with this revolutionary notion that she sought out Simonton and his wife so she could work with them.
In the three decades since, Achterberg has become a force in the world of mind-body medicine. She is best known for a healing technique called guided imagery, in which the patient meditates on her disease, her immune system and the medicines coursing through her body. And while nobody knows precisely how it works, guided imagery has shown clear benefit in reversing weight loss in cancer patients, reducing the length of hospital stays and easing the pain and fatigue of a number of ailments.
Achterberg's greatest challenge came in 1999, when she developed cancer in her left eye. She refused treatment: "I couldn't have my eye taken out." Too upset to perform guided imagery on herself, she relied on prayers and vicarious healing imagery from friends and colleagues. So far, she has survived 18 months--doctors gave her six--and is now studying the curative powers of communal prayer that she calls "transpersonal medicine."
Whatever the outcome, her earlier work has earned Achterberg a place in the history of both conventional and complementary medicine. The guided imagery she pioneered is now being practiced in hospitals all around the world.
--By Michael D. Lemonick. Reported by Unmesh Kher