Dreamed twice, March 1985, by "Nancy"
Robin Royston, M.D., the staff psychiatrist at Ticehurst House Hospital in East Sussex, England, began collecting prodromal dreams [dreams predicting illness] in earnest after one odd instance he'd encountered in his practice: A patient had come to him with a terrifying dream in which a black panther had attacked him and sunk its claws into his back "between my shoulder blades just to the left of my spine." Royston was nonplussed when the man later developed a melanoma (melanos means "black") in precisely that spot.
After he wrote up the case for the London Times, Dr. Royston was deluged with letters from dozens of patients eager to recount their own similar cases. After accumulating some two hundred fifty instances, he concluded that they are more common than is generally thought. Many cases might be explained, he surmised, by the immune system signaling the brain about a subliminally perceived change in the body's condition. But others seemed weirdly predictive, even precognitive, sometimes providing more accurate information than the most sophisticated medical tests. "These are not ordinary dreams," he noted, "but big dreams, archetypal dreams, so laden with powerful emotional affect that the dreamer is forced to take them most seriously."
Dr. Royston recounted for me a fascinating case from his files that exhibits all the art and device of Healing Dreams: A fifty-seven-year-old woman named Nancy had an extraordinarily vivid and disturbing dream on two successive nights in March of 1985.
In her dream, she was walking on a campus crowded with students (not an unusual circumstance, as she was then a graduate student). Suddenly she was pushed from behind, a stunning blow she felt "through my chest," which knocked her over a fence to the ground below. She got up only to be struck down again. Anticipating a third blow, she whirled around to face her attacker. She was disconcerted to see a strange hooded figure:
I knock him to the ground, sit on him and punch him in the face with my fist. Then the hood falls off, and I see it is myself! I continue to punch the figure in the face and in the chest, shouting "Bad Nancy! Bad Nancy!"She felt depressed for days. When she told a friend about the dream, she burst into tears.
Five months after this violent inner event, Nancy discovered a lump in her left breast. A biopsy was scheduled. At home, cleaning her closet to distract herself before the procedure, she came across a cartoon she'd once clipped of a woman with a shovel standing in deep snowdrift, captioned "I'm invincible!" On it, Nancy had jotted a lot of the things she had to accomplish that semester. "The thought popped into mind I might have one more thing to conquer. I was going to write 'cancer,' but then found myself starting to write 'malignancy."' She felt a jolt of recognition from head to toe. Mali means "bad," she thought. She had been shouting at the dream figure: "Bad Nancy. Mali Nancy. Malignancy." Shortly thereafter, the tumor was diagnosed as malignant, and she had a lumpectomy.
Her dream has many layers of meaning. There is an amazing factual bombshell (though on a delayed fuse) that only detonates upon solving a word-puzzle. The dream also makes a metaphoric statement about the nature of cancer as a sort of evil twin of one's normal physiology--the "bad" cells have her own face. There are graphic clues about psychological traits some researchers have linked to a vulnerability to cancer--a deep sense of self-criticism (Bad Nancy), coupled, as is often the case, with a compensatory "I'm invincible," can-do persona. (The cartoon shows a person who, even when she's in deep trouble, can't admit it: she's "snowing herself.")
Four years later, Nancy noticed another lump, which two successive oncologists diagnosed as a benign cyst, telling her she need not be unduly alarmed. Around this time, a powerful dream awakened her:
In an open village square, a crowd has gathered around listening to a hooded figure preach on some subject I don't seem to understand. I push through the crowd to the front and begin arguing with the figure, shouting, "I don't understand." He ignores me. I am so angry I take my boot and kick a mound of white crusted snow that is between us. I make a hole in the crust, and out comes a slurry of white and black rabbits in a greenish, syruplike fluid! Everyone reacts with horror.The next day, Nancy contacted a surgeon and insisted on a biopsy, which revealed that the fluid in the "benign" cyst contained both live and dead cancer cells. After diagnosis, she elected to have a double mastectomy. Dr. Poyston noted: "The dream had used all her symbols: the snowbank from the earlier cartoon, and the hooded figure from the first dream--which was now a male figure, no longer herself, perhaps implying a worse malignancy. And the rabbits symbolized something that could breed very rapidly. Having already seen a demonstration of her dreams' accuracy, she opted for the most aggressive treatment."
Still, such dream prognosis is, Royston adds, a difficult area. "Some people may have a dramatic and awful dream about a physical problem, and nothing ever happens. Even the predictive dreams only make sense once the illness has happened, and they realize in retrospect what the dream was talking about...There may be a time when we have gathered enough data to get closer to being able to do some useful diagnosis and prediction. But at this point, any set way of interpretation is useless."
As well, to try to reduce such a dream to a single, fixed diagnosis may be to miss its other hidden meanings... The previous dream, for example, equates "Bad Nancy" with malignancy, suggesting that the dreamer's negative self-image--her "beating herself up"--also needs healing attention.
--Marc Ian Barasch
Source: Healing Dreams by Marc Ian Barasch, 2000, p. 66-67
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