“It's time for you to get cancer.”
Phrases like that kept waking me from dead sleep throughout the summer of 2013. By day I mocked it. Gee, I forgot I made that cancer getting appointment. How inconvenient! By night I worried what cruel claim my subconscious would submit next for my consideration. But mostly life went on as normal, that is, until my next routine breast screening that winter.
When my previous mammogram returned clear the radiologist casually mentioned that I have dense breasts. Having more fibrous than fatty breast tissue, mammograms sometimes miss malignancies in women with this condition.
I became one of them.
Haunted by those dreams, but under no medical suspicion of cancer, I requested an MRI that year since it detects better through dense tissue than mammography. Between getting scanned and receiving the results another ominous dream invaded my sleep. A woman in a lab coat told me I had breast cancer. A week later her words were confirmed by my real life doctor.
More shocking than being diagnosed with cancer in a dream was learning that I am not alone. Around the time of my diagnosis Dr. Larry Burk, M.D. was recruiting women who dreamed of breast cancer before their actual diagnoses for a study. Larry is a former section head in musculoskeletal radiology at Duke University and co-founder of the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in 1998. His inspiration for the breast cancer warning dreams study were the precognitive dreams of a friend and those of two medical community peers.
Warning Dreams Proceeding the Diagnosis of Breast Cancer: A Survey of the Most Important Characteristics was published in the May/June Issue of Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. Post publication Dr. Burk introduced some of the women so we could compare notes. The commonalities between our experiences are remarkable. Most, but not all of us, had tumors missed by mammography. Our dreams motivated each of us to get screened, and in some cases, to press for a second look. And, we all believe responding to the urgency of these dreams saved our lives.
Paulette Wyssbrod Goltz was told in her dream: “Your mother has cancer, she has three months to live and you have a tumor in your right breast.” Paulette dutifully got mammograms each year because of this dream, which came back normal. The fifth year, having just passed another mammogram, Goltz noticed a patch of orange flaky skin on her right breast and insisted on a more in-depth screening. She was informed that her cancer had been growing for about five years. And Paulette’s mother? She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after the dream and passed away six months later.
Kathleen Kanavos had recurrent dreams insisting she go back to the doctor despite her normal mammogram because she had cancer. Her doctor refused to consider there could be a problem given the unremarkable screening. Then Kat had another dream that shook her to the core: “A guide took my hand, placed it on my right breast and said, ‘You have cancer right here. Feel it? Go back to your doctor tomorrow. Don’t wait for an appointment.’ I started to cry in my dream and told him that the doctors wouldn’t listen to me now any more than before.” The dream guide told Kat she needed exploratory surgery. Her doctor wasn’t having it. He wanted to wait six months and re-screen. Yet, with amazing aplomb Kanavos convinced him to order the surgery. Much to his surprise, a tumor, right where Kat predicted. Waiting six months would have given Kat’s Stage 2 cancer more time to metastasize out of control.
Like myself and Kathleen, Wanda Burch had a series of dreams, each revealing more information. Fortunately, Burch’s doctors took her dream data seriously. “He (the surgeon) asked if I dreamed the location of the tumor. I had. He gave me a felt tip pen and asked me to draw the location on my breast. The location was accurate and he passed along information to my oncologist on the nature of my dreaming and asked him to participate actively with me in the healing process. I had an aggressive cancer that did not show up on a mammogram. One of my dreams warned me of this and encouraged me to aggressively pursue the only information available on the diagnosis – my dreams. I did. Dr. Barlyn shared later that had it not been for my dreams, I would have been dead in a year with no symptoms.”
Seventeen women from the study are in remission, some for many years. Only one is no longer with us: Dr. Burk’s friend, Sonia Lee-Shield. Like the rest of us, Sonia dreamed she had cancer. Unfortunately, her doctors did nothing. Lee-Shield's lump was dismissed as normal breast tissue and a year later she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer that eventually metastasized, taking her life. “If there’s one thing I could impart to everyone is that doctors and specialists make mistakes and when an inner voice starts screaming or dreaming you should listen.”, wrote Sonia on her blog in 2013.
There’s no common conception in modern America for what happened to us. This sort of thing is typically relegated to the don’t-look-at-it-don’t-even-think-about-it woo bin. You can see a pin drop on my Facebook wall if I mention these scary cancer dreams. Yet, the notion of predictive dreaming across history and cultures isn't farfetched. Indigenous regions of the world consider such nocturnal content rather ordinary. And, ancient Greeks traveled to special temples to incubate healing dreams. Even notable 20th century psychiatrist Carl Jung believed dreams could reveal useful information about the body.
I don’t write this article to say, - look at us; we have this super power. I’d rather take a nap and I wouldn’t expect that to interest anyone else either. But if we are right, that heeding warning dreams of illness saved our lives, this may have relevance beyond our own experiences. Sharing our stories might inspire others to pay closer attention to their own health related dreams. It could encourage doctors to listen carefully when such cases present, as did Wanda Burch’s surgeon. Reality is, we need more tools for breast cancer screening. A recent Cochrane review found that breast screening has no impact on mortality rates, resulting in changes to longstanding recommendation guidelines. We're now told to begin biennial mammography at age fifty rather than starting annually at forty as before. Many women now worry if early detection is even likely under these new guidelines. Can people be trained to tune into their bodies to detect health problems early, as we in the study appear to have done spontaneously? That potentially life-saving question is worth asking and research is the most logical place to start. This article is a call for such research and I’m grateful to Dr. Burk for taking pioneering first steps in that direction.
Though distressing, I never refer to my precognitive cancer dreams as nightmares. Not anymore. They were gifts from my psyche. Had I not heeded their warning, by now I might be planning my end of life care instead of my next vacation. As Wanda Burch says, “I live because I dream.”