Healing Can Happen Even When There is No Cure

We can choose to embrace our woundedness yet not be defined by our wounds.

Posted Apr 23, 2018

“Steve underwent emergency surgery on Tuesday for a primary brain tumor in his right temporal lobe,” read the startling message from Steve’s husband Joe. “Short-term prospects are good/excellent. Six days after surgery, Steve is completely and totally Steve again, and has regained balance and control of body muscles.”

The message continued. “Long-term prospects are another matter.” In fact, the long-term prospects are bleak for someone with a glioblastoma

Just like that, in the blink of an eye, Steve’s, and his family’s, life is forever changed. Mortality is no longer an abstraction, but a cold, hard fact of life. 

Steve knows what he is facing. There’s no denial, no hysterics, no cries of “why me?” He is a psychotherapist, after all, and long experienced at helping others to deal with trauma. Now it’s his turn to use all he knows for his own benefit.

He is certainly benefitting. When I visited him at Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, we spoke at length about the difference between healing and cure. There is no known cure for the cancer that has suddenly showed up and demanded center stage in Steve’s life.

Yet profound healing already is happening—and that is what will allow Steve himself not to let this unwelcome development overthrow his spirit and become the defining event of his life.

I faced a similar experience in 2005, when my doctor called and said, “I have bad news on the HIV test.” In a flash, the virus that had killed so many of my friends and unleashed such fear and sorrow in the world, became an unavoidable part of my life forevermore. 

But I was determined from the first that it would only be part of my life. I would not allow it to define me or occupy any more of my life than what was required to manage it. I was determined to continue being the man I know myself to be.

That’s why Steve told me I am, as he is becoming, someone who has experienced deep healing even though there is no cure for what I must live with for the rest of my life.

In a 2000 story I wrote for the Washington Post “Health” section, I profiled an organization in Washington dedicated to supporting people living with cancer. Known today as Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, the agency, modeled after California-based Commonweal, provides retreats and other programming aimed at helping people to heal even when there is no cure for the cancer that afflicts them.

“Healing can take place at a physical, emotional, or spiritual level,” said Commonweal’s co-founder Michael Lerner in an interview for the story. “It can take place both in conjunction with curative treatment—and where curative treatment is impossible, where one is even in the process of dying.”

Lerner writes elsewhere, “Curing is what a physician seeks to offer you. Healing, however, comes from within us. It’s what ‘we’ bring to the table. Healing can be described as a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual process of coming home.”

The idea that we should “keep a positive attitude” is “crazy” and “toxic,” says Lerner. “It is much healthier, much more healing, to allow yourself to feel whatever it is coming up in you, and allow yourself to work with that anxiety, depression, grief. Because, underneath that, if you allow those feelings to come up and express themselves, then you can find the truly positive way of living in relationship to those feelings.”

Besides letting ourselves feel our feelings, Lerner recommends that we address what the disease “means” to us.

People often feel their disease is some kind of judgment for something they did wrong. People living with HIV in particular are regularly assaulted by stigma that suggests we are “unclean” and “deserve” to suffer for what fearful and judgmental others consider to be our “sin” of contracting this particular microbe rather than a more socially acceptable one—as if viruses "mean" anything beyond what humans believe them to mean.

Rejecting stigma, denying others’ judgment, attaching our own new meaning to our experience—these are keys to healing and fundamental to being resilient. Instead of letting anyone else define us, or whatever medical condition we must live with, we define ourselves by reframing our personal narrative in a way that supports our healing. Instead of being “AIDS victims” or “cancer victims” we see ourselves as survivors and the heroes of our own life stories.

Serious illness has made Steve, and me, aware of our woundedness and need of healing. But what if you could heal from traumatic experiences that don’t land you in a hospital or saddle you with a daily regimen of pill-taking and regular medical check-ups?

The truth is, you can—if you want to. Even a cure for disease is only effective when there is healing on a deeper level. Your doctor can prescribe the best, most powerful medical treatment in the world for what ails you. But if you don’t take your medication because you are depressed or anxious or hopeless, it will do you no good. 

“Healing is the most fundamental aspect of our condition,” Michael Lerner writes, “and it’s a continuous rediscovery of what it means to be alive. It spills over into the rest of our life and guides us.” He makes clear this isn’t about some kind of spiritual experience of being high and above it all. “Not at all. It is about living with the ongoing stresses and strains and difficulties—and joys—of life, but doing so in a way that we feel whole.”