For the Week of October 18, 2015: What Does It Mean to Heal?

“What does it mean to heal?”   I posed the question to my writing group at Moores Cancer Center Friday morning.  Being healed.  It’s a topic never out of consciousness in the experience of cancer, used often in combination with terms like “treatment”, “recovery”, “cure”, or “in remission”.  Yet “healing” connotes deeper meaning, and what we consider healing may be entirely unique to each of us.

We began by reviewing the dictionary definition, “the natural process by which the body repairs itself,” “tending to cure or restore to health,” “improve or make better.”  Heal or healing is a word used frequently in many contexts.  Google it, and you’re confronted with multiple variations in its use whether by traditional medicine, psychology, religion, alternative healing methods or even “writing as a way of healing.”

In a 2005 article entitled “The Meaning of Healing:  Transcending Suffering,” appearing in the Annals of Family Medicine, author Thomas Egnew explored the meaning of healing and attempted to translate it into behaviors that could help doctors enhance their own abilities as healers. He includes three major themes in his definition:  wholeness (to become or make whole), narrative (a reinterpretation of life), and spirituality (the search to be human; to transcend).

Jeremy Geffen, MD and oncologist, defined seven different levels of healing in his 2006 book,  The Journey Through CancerHealing and Transforming the Whole Person, which he argued are necessary to regain our whole selves. They are:

  1. Information or knowledge
  2. Connecting with others
  3. Exploring safe and effective ways of tending to our health
  4. Emotional healing
  5. Harnessing the power of the mind
  6. Assessing our life’s purpose and meaning
  7. A spiritual connection

Geffen’s work, like Egnew’s, went beyond the traditional concept of healing, and both are particularly relevant to the cancer experience.  A serious illness like cancer threatens your very sense of self.  What you took for granted is turned upside down.  Your life is redefined, but so is your perspective on life, death and healing.  Who better, then,  to ask what it means to heal than a group of cancer patients and survivors?  Here are some of their responses emerging out of the writing last Friday morning:

“A process of making me whole”

“Peace with what is.”

“Three grandchildren.”

“My mind and soul at peace.”

“Acceptance of unknown challenges”

“Connecting the mind and body”

“Things that make me forget I need healing.”

“Wind chimes, homemade soup, a kitten’s purr”

“A gentle smile, a sunset, the smell of moist soil”

“leading me away from fear toward hope”

As we went around the table, I was touched by each person’s expression of what it meant to heal.  But one response in particular stayed with me.  M. began by telling us of the years she and her family lived in Japan where they learned about the Japanese legend of folding 1000 origami cranes to have one’s wishes granted.

In Japan, cranes are symbols of good luck and longevity, but after World War II, the act of making 1,000 cranes to grant wishes took on larger meaning:  a hope for world peace and healing.  It began with the work of a 12-year-old girl dying of leukemia due to radiation exposure from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  She was, apparently, determined to fold 1,000 cranes to have her wish, that she continue to live, granted, but sadly, she died with just over 600 cranes folded.  Her classmates finished folding the remaining cranes for her, and now, her statue stands at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, along with strings of paper cranes. (From:  “Paper cranes to bring message of healing,” by Robert Miller, Newstimes,December 31, 2012,)

As it turns out, when M. was diagnosed with cancer, her daughter set to work and began folding paper cranes for her mother.  “It took her two years,” she said, “but she folded 1000 paper cranes for me.  Every time I look at them, I feel healed.”  M. had tears in her eyes as she read what she’d written aloud—and frankly, so did I.

Writing Suggestion:

This week, think about how you use the word “heal” in your life.  What does “healing” mean to you.  What, in your experience, has been a healing experience for you?  What people, places or activities have been important in your healing process?    Write about healing.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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