Healing (Even When There is No Cure)

July 9, 2014 Providence Regional Cancer System Southwest Washington

By Teresa Dominic, cancer survivor and guest blogger

Providence Cancer Survivorship Blog Guest BloggerBeyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.


This gentle poem, by the poet Rumi, is a metaphor for me of how healing can feel, when detached from the expectation of cure.

Like any other patient with cancer, I have a definite preference for cure. When I was first diagnosed with cancer four years ago, my hope was that cancer would take up a short chapter in an otherwise long and healthy life story. When friends meet with cancer, this is my preference for them, too. I hope for it, and rejoice as the quarterly scans keep coming back, clear after clear.

However, even when there is a physical cure, the experience of having cancer requires healing. Healing is needed for disfigurement and pain, the existential uncertainty, the stark introduction to the world of illness. Other people may be rejoicing: “You are done!” and “You beat this thing!”

I learned I wasn’t the only one who met the end of treatment that first time with depression and confusion. The feelings held at bay in order to get through the experience come rushing back in. Those who’ve faced cancer know that any special feeling of protection we have from mortality is a thin illusion.

At the end of chemotherapy and radiation, it was helpful to continue adjunct treatments like acupuncture and nutritional self-care. I met with a support group of cancer survivors and worked on exercise goals. There was comfort in sharing our feelings. I could relate so much to others in the group. And it felt good to be doing this positive thing for our bodies which had been through so much. These activities introduced healing to those wounded places.

Two years ago, my cancer recurred. Unfortunately, although the cancer can be kept in check with treatment for a time, it isn’t considered curable. I’m now a survivor who’ll be living with ongoing cancer. My lifespan prognosis is considerably shortened.

Having a recurrence left me with questions. Did I bring this on by not “being positive enough” or by not making enough strict and radical changes to my lifestyle? What does this mean for my finances and independence and my work life? How can I stay engaged in living and approach death gracefully?

The lack of cure can bring up fear for others. We may remind them of that thin illusion of protection from mortality. And, they may be struggling to preserve that illusion longer. This state of fear can come across as unintended judgments of “right-doing and wrong-doing.” For example, an acquaintance remarked of a mutual friend who’d passed away from a brain tumor: “I kept telling her that I was claiming a cure for her, but it seems like she just decided to give up.”

Battle metaphors aren’t as empowering when the “enemy” lives with you, day after day, in your own body, and will most likely, eventually, be the cause of your death. If it’s a battle, does this mean that cancer has “won” and we’re doomed to being the shameful vanquished ones?

Peaceful field at sunsetHealing provides new possibilities in viewing our situation. It is that expansive field, where the soul can relax and experience the fullness of our inner and outer worlds. No matter the condition of our bodies, there is still a lot of living going on in our hearts and minds and souls. And, healing seeks to bring that liveliness forth.

There are many avenues for healing. An important question to ask is what is important to you? What enhances your feeling of connection and enjoyment of the world? Art, music, food, pets, the ocean, humor, learning. Is there a way to experience what you enjoy, even if it needs to be in a different way than before?

For example, I’ve always been someone who feels centered walking in the outdoors. At times I can still do short hikes, but when physically depleted, I might choose a walk with easily-spaced benches, or simply view nature from my front porch.

A few other practices which have been particularly healing for me include:

Authenticity – Studies show a health benefit to patients who have a safe space in which to share all the feelings that come with this cancer journey. That space may be a support group, a loving friendship or partnership, or even with the self, in writing and reflection. The battle metaphor can require us to be “brave” or be “positive.” Authenticity requires us to just be … us. Our brave, positive, frightened, weird, silly, angry, grieving, curious selves.

Compassion practice – Pema Chodron describes tonglen practice as “Breathing in for all of us, and breathing out for all of us.” Using tonglen, or other mindfulness practices, we feel our own uncomfortable feelings while quietly breathing. In that gentle space, we can intentionally bring to mind all others now facing those same struggles and feelings. Our breath can expand in compassion for ourselves and those others. We see that our particular tragedy connects us to the central heart of being a human. With our out breath, we can send compassion to soften our own and others’ pain, and surround it with divine love.

Noticing now – One benefit of the painful shattering of the illusion of mortality can be a precious experience of the now. A day with wind chimes ringing and new flowers opening up. A day of encountering strangers and friends. Or quietly resting with the cat. When we were going to live forever, cancer free, these small things could be pushed aside in favor of pursuing the busy tasks of the day. Now they can be important as they are: so many small reminders of just how alive we are RIGHT NOW.

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.

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