A vision for recovery

Cancer survivor hopes to help others with meditation video

LINDEN HILLS – The fear – make that terror – was almost overwhelming.

It was 1995, and Mary Hallman’s doctor had just diagnosed her with a rare form of ovarian cancer.

Her odds of surviving another two years, she learned, were around one in five.

As an intensive care nurse, Hallman was trained in helping others through grim times, but her personal confrontation with cancer gave her a new depth of understanding.

It’s something she hopes to pass along to others through a new meditation video aimed at helping cancer patients relieve their stress.

“I needed to step out of it,” Hallman said. “It was just instinctive to try to find a way to relax as best I could and let everything else go.”

Several weeks into her chemotherapy, Hallman began taking time to close her eyes and clear her mind, usually sitting on a chair or couch in her Linden Hills home.

She still struggles to explain what happened next.

“When I became really relaxed, I started to see this imagery,” Hallman said. “It was like my own little light show.”

The best she can describe it is like looking at a light bulb and then closing your eyes, leaving an orange, wobbly ring on the back of your eyelid that slowly collapses.

“I never shut my eyes and relaxed and tried to see it. It was just there.”

At first, she didn’t attach meaning to the visions, but gradually she found comfort in imagining the rings as a metaphor for her body fighting the cancer. She saw them whenever she reached the same deep state of relaxation.

Months after her treatment, she’d long forgotten the imagery when one day it returned, she said. This time, she gave the vision more thought, trying unsuccessfully to explain it to others.

“I was so frustrated that I couldn’t describe it to somebody,” Hallman said.

Hallman was never given a clean bill of health. She knew the cancer could reappear at any time, and she started doing intense reading and research on her condition. She found particular interest in a process called cellular apoptosis, by which the body continuously eliminates old, unnecessary and unhealthy cells.

Then, one day, a revelation.

A doctor in Poland who was researching apoptosis had created an animation of what the process looks like. Hallman said she was shocked at how closely the animation mirrored her relaxation visions.

“The interesting thing is that imagery and what it did was similar,” Hallman said.

Convinced of the significance, Hallman and her daughters, Jennifer Russell and Molly Russell Ford, set out to make a meditation video that would help other cancer patients reach the same deep relaxation she had found.

The result, after countless hours around the dining room table in her Beard Avenue home, is “Visions for Cancer Recovery,” a 20-minute DVD that uses calm narration, nature scenes and the apoptosis animation in an attempt to bring others to the images.

“What the piece is is a deep relaxation and stress relief visual meditation,” Hallman said. “It helps them have a little more control. The patient becomes active in healing.”

Viewers are eventually told to visualize their immune system fighting the cancer. One by one, the wobbly, orange halos flare up and implode on the screen.

“Think of the body doing the work it needs to do,” Hallman instructs viewers at the video’s climax.

“The beauty of the film is it’s very direct and specific,” said Dr. Alison Levitt. She works at an urgent care center and also her own practice in Linden Hills, which focuses on things life nutrition, herbs, supplements and lifestyle changes to improve health.

A large part of the video’s potential benefit comes from relaxation. The body’s immune system functions better when it is not under stress, Levitt said.

It’s also powerful to be able to visualize your immune system destroying cancer cells, Levitt said. Hallman’s video is the first of its kind Levitt is aware of that is aimed specifically at cancer patients.

“While they’re undergoing their treatments they can relax, which is essential, but they can also get empowered by visualizing their cancer cells passing away,” Levitt said. “I think it gives people an opportunity to see the potential to heal.”

It’s not a replacement for conventional medicine, but it’s a potentially powerful tool, she said, and one that mainstream medicine is starting to recognize more often. “Visions for Cancer Recovery” is being offered to patients at the Mayo Clinic and is available through Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Institute for Health and Healing. Levitt isn’t sure whether that would have happened a decade ago.

“The quality of the visuals and narration are outstanding,” said Sarah Christensen, a patient education specialist at Mayo Clinic who evaluated the video before it was offered to the hospital’s patients. It’s now available on the Mayo Clinic’s video-on-demand service in Rochester and Arizona.

The video is valuable as a relaxation tool and as a means to give patients control over at least one aspect of their treatment, she said. The meditation exercises in the video are available whenever they want to use them.

“A lot of times when you’re being treated for cancer, things are done to you,” Christensen said. “This video allows the patient to add another level of care to that treatment.”

That extra level of treatment, a layer called complimentary and integrative medicine, has only recently been accepted by mainstream medicine. The medical world now agrees for the most part that the mind has an ability to impact the body’s healing. “We don’t know how or how much, but there’s something to it,” Christensen said.

Steve Twite of Chanhassen is using the video as he recovers from prostrate cancer, for which he had surgery in 2001. He found out about the video through a mutual friend.

“In a perfect world, I’d watch it every day,” Twite said. “It’s a wonderful, life-improving tool.”

He said he watches it a few times a week but thinks about its instructions daily. It leaves him in a relaxed, positive state, but it’s more than that, he said.

“I believe that the mind has a tremendous capacity for healing the body,” he said. “And this video is a key to unlocking that.”

Hallman is more cautious with her claims about the video. To hear her talk about the imagery, there’s still a mystery to her about how they helped her, but it’s a place she wants others to see.

“It’s about bringing a little bit of comfort,” Hallman said. “A sense that right now, everything is OK.”


Reach Dan Haugen at 436-5088 or [email protected]