In Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer, Michael Lerner describes both healing and curing cancer, suggesting how they differ and how they relate to each other. This post draws from the second chapter of his book.

Healing goes beyond curing

There is a fundamental distinction between healing and curing cancer that lies at the heart of all genuinely patient-centered approaches to cancer treatment and care. While the distinction between curing and healing is widely recognized, the significance of these two complementary approaches to recovery from cancer is rarely explained to people with cancer.

As the term is generally used, a cure is a successful medical treatment. In other words, a cure is a treatment that removes all evidence of the disease and allows the person who previously had cancer to live as long as he or she would have lived without cancer. A cure is what the physician hopes to bring to the patient—the external medical process of effecting an outcome in which the disease disappears.

Healing, in contrast, is an inner process through which a person becomes whole. Healing can take place at the physical level, as when a wound or broken bone heals. It can take place at an emotional level, as when we recover from terrible childhood traumas or from a divorce or a death of a loved one. It can take place at a mental level, as when we learn to reframe or restructure destructive ideas about ourselves and the world that we have carried. And it can take place at what some would call a spiritual level, as when we move toward God, toward a deeper connection with nature, or toward inner peace and a sense of connectedness.

Although curing and healing are different, they are deeply entwined. For any cure to work, the physical healing power of the organism must be sufficient to enable recovery to take place. When a physician sets a bone or prescribes an antibiotic for an infection, he or she is doing his/her part for recovery by offering curative therapy. Yet when the inner healing power of the organism is insufficiently strong, the bone will not knit or the infection will not subside. Healing is thus a necessary part of curing—a fact with profound implications for medicine, since the authentically holistic physician is deeply aware of the essential role that patients’ recuperative powers play and will do everything possible to encourage the patient to enhance those recuperative powers.

Healing, however, goes beyond curing and may take place when curing is not at issue or has proved impossible. Although the capacity to heal physically is necessary to any successful cure, healing can also take place on deeper levels, whether or not physical recovery occurs. I have had many friends with cancer for whom curative treatment ultimately proved impossible. Yet, even as their disease progressed, the inner healing process—emotional, mental, and spiritual—was astonishingly powerful in their own lives and in those of their families and friends.

Engaging in healing

That you can participate in the fight for life with cancer—by working to enhance your own healing and recuperative resources—is a profoundly important discovery for many people. Cancer patients often experience themselves as losing all control of their lives. They become the passive objects of all kinds of decisions and treatments by their medical teams. They feel they must do what their physicians tell them. They may feel that they can do nothing to help themselves. Often, no one has offered them the opportunity to consider the distinction between healing and curing.

Scientifically, we do not know how much difference personal efforts at healing can make in extending life. However, most psychotherapists who work with cancer know clinically that a patient engaged in personal healing work can make a transformative difference in his quality of life. An ever-increasing body of scientific evidence suggests that a strong desire to live—a willingness to engage in the struggle for life—and a continuous movement toward a healthy relationship with life do help some people in their fight for physical recovery. Conversely, long-term chronic depression, hopelessness, cynicism and similar characteristics tend to diminish resilience and increase physical vulnerability.

Interestingly, the successful fight for life is not necessarily waged best by the person with an excessive attachment to the outcome. As we shall see, the shamans in traditional systems of medicine around the world found that if they sought first to safeguard the soul, rather than the body, the body tended to respond better. Similarly, a boxer who is angry at his opponent is usually less skillful and more likely to lose the fight. Surgeons do not operate on their wives or children because they know that their attachment to the outcome would lessen their skills. Soldiers in desperate battlefield situations know that to be trapped in fear of death may doom them: they need clear heads, courage and hope, against all odds, to survive.

Response to life-threatening situations

In Europe, mountain climbing stories have been meticulously collected from climbers who survived life-threatening falls, and these stories may illustrate the complexity of the healing response. As the fall begins, the climber does not scream as falling people do in the movies. Instead, time slows down enormously—as it does for many people just before a car accident. Everything seems to be taking place in slow motion. The survival benefit of this slowing down of time is that the falling climber has every opportunity to notice lifesaving possibilities—handholds or shrubs that might be grasped to break the fall. But if the opportunities for active self-preservation disappear, the faller then enters a state not of panic but of deep peace. He may experience the often-reported process of life recall, with his life flashing back before his eyes. He may hear celestial music. Hitting the ground is usually experienced without pain—he only hears the impact. Hearing is the last sense to disappear into unconsciousness.

By analogy, the healing response that takes place as we go into the “free fall” of a cancer diagnosis seeks every opportunity to maximize the possibilities for physical life recovery. Intelligence and intuition may be brought together in choices of treatment, hospital, doctor and of complementary therapies or the paths of self-exploration, health promotion and self-care. The very process that maximizes the opportunities to recover also prepares us to make the best of a long life with cancer, or the best use of whatever time we have available.

Thus the starting point for informed choice in both mainstream and complementary cancer therapies is the patient’s recognition that she or he can play a crucial role in the fight for his/her life. The recognition of the unique role that each of us can play in our own healing reaches beyond choices about therapy to choices about how we intend to live each day for the rest of our lives.

Helpful links and videos

The Transformative Power of Cancer

Mark Renneker, MD

Play video

The Seven Levels of Healing

Jeremy Geffen, MD

Play video

Journey through Cancer: Emotional Healing

In this excerpt from his best selling DVD, The Seven Levels of Healing, Dr. Jeremy Geffen discusses how roller coaster emotions affect a patient’s journey through cancer and what can happen when we find the courage to embrace these emotions and bring them into the light of awareness.

Play video

Fixing vs. Helping

Author, clinical professor and CancerChoices advisor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, explains how fixing and helping can make a patient feel weak, empty, or less than others, while “finding what is hidden” assumes that nothing is broken.

Play video

The Role of Ritual in Healing

Janie Brown, co-founder and executive director of the Callanish Society, and Michael Lerner, co-founder of CancerChoices, discuss the role of ritual in healing.

Play video

Learn more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About the Author

Michael Lerner

Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices.

Learn More

Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices. He has led more than 200 Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats to date. His book Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer was the first book on integrative cancer care to be well received by prominent medical journals as well as by the patient and integrative cancer care community.

Michael Lerner Co-Founder