Join us by reading one chapter per week of our book The Healing Circle which includes inspiring true stories and teaching from the ‘Skills for Healing’ Cancer Weekend Retreats. Each week we will post the next chapter of our book, links to related video, and a blog about the chapter. Learn about recent scientific advances in the body-mind-spirit connection, updates of the people featured in our book, and our reflections on each chapter. Read the whole book for free by accessing the previous blog posts. Please send us your comments and questions! Deep peace and healing, Rob Rutledge, MD and Timothy Walker, PhD.
Read Chapter Twenty-Five: Reframing for the Cancer Hero
Watch the Video: Embracing the Paradox of Peace, Joy and Suffering (And other life lessons offered by an Oncologist)
What can we learn from remarkable cancer survivors about how to live our lives? With the understanding that life is limited and precious, these ordinary yet extra-ordinary people can show us how to ride the tension of acceptance and pro-activity – teaching us to let go while taking practical steps to facilitate healing at levels of body, mind and spirit.
Oncologist Dr. Rob Rutledge shares the wisdom and inspiration he has garnered in 25 years of clinical practice and in leading dozens of cancer retreats. Through sharing recent scientific findings, experiential exercises, and stories from his life and the cancer world, Dr. Rutledge shows us how to integrate proven healing skills, embrace our challenges, and reclaim our already existing wholeness.
Should you fight against cancer?
The Canadian Cancer Society urges us to ‘fight back against cancer’. The slogan for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is ‘fighting blood cancers’. A Montreal-based young adult cancer group calls themselves the Cancer Fight Club. All three of these organizations are making a huge difference in countless lives across our country. But is the underlying message that we should be in a war against cancer?
If you are energized by these military analogies or the idea of fighting for your life, I applaud your warrior spirit. Though I’m going to offer a different way of approaching a cancer diagnosis, I don’t want to infer that one approach is better than another. What I’ve found over the past 25 years being an Oncologist is that each person needs to find an approach that is right for them. So for you fighters please continue to draw on that life force to channel your energies into empowering yourself (mind and body), helping others affected by cancer, and supporting hospitals and researchers in whatever way feels best for you.
Secondly, just because I’m offering a more peaceful approach doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting that cancer is a good thing. I witness the tremendous human suffering caused by cancer every day. I am deeply saddened when one of my little pediatric patients dies of the disease. They had all this potential to live a long and meaningful life – and suddenly it’s gone. Worse for me is the young moms with cancer who languish about not being there for their kids. (Truly no one can replace a mother’s love.)
However, I believe we can mourn these deep losses without feeling that a battle has been lost. We can strive to maximize the chance of recovery for every person diagnosed with cancer by providing the best possible care, and, collectively, by promoting research and its swift implementation- and not feel we’re fighting a war.
The reality is that we’re all going to get sick in our lives and, eventually, we’re all going to die. And we won’t know how or when that’s going to happen. Getting a cancer diagnosis is very distressing for most people because it shatters their expectations of what the future holds. Having to work with so many unknowns at once creates anxiety and stress, and most people really struggle emotionally during the first few weeks of being diagnosed. It’s healthy to mourn the loss of the life before cancer, and to feel the full spectrum of human emotions that arise.
However, feeling badly about what has happened and worrying about your loved ones is different from thinking ‘This shouldn’t have happened’. Wishing that the cancer never appeared in your life creates an unnecessary level of suffering which adds to an already difficult situation. There are lots of variations on the theme that ‘life should not be this way’. Examples include ‘Young mothers shouldn’t get cancer’, ‘I didn’t do anything to deserve this cancer’, and ‘If only I hadn’t (smoked, drank, ate so much …) I wouldn’t have gotten cancer’. Questioning why something happened is only valuable if you can apply the wisdom garnered to your life going forward. But fighting against reality is a waste of energy.
The second reason I’m not personally in favour of fighting against cancer is the idea that if the cancer recurs or if the person dies then it means somehow they will have ‘lost’. They failed. Or they didn’t fight hard enough. Even saying ‘they fought a valiant fight’ seems too narrow a perspective. Why would we view the length of time we live as a measure of success? Isn’t asking how we spent those days more meaningful?
Accepting that getting a life-threatening illness is a natural part of being human is like accepting that our bodies have limits. When facing our own mortality do we focus on the time we might lose or do we cherish the time that we do have right here and now. Likewise, we can place great value on taking care of our bodies (exercise, diet, sleep, meditation practice) so we can better manifest our spirit in the physical realm. But at some point in our lives our bodies will get weaker even if we follow the self-empowerment program perfectly. When this happens we can either lament our shortcomings (‘I can’t do what I used to’) or we can choose to focus on what we can do.
The key to embracing and transcending this empowerment approach is to truly accept reality for what it is. We can expect that great difficulties like getting a cancer diagnosis are going to happen to each of us and our loved ones at some point in our lives. Perhaps we need not be surprised when it happens. And we may be able to figure out ways to bring more love into the world in the midst of the cancer journey. We can still take the practical steps to heal our bodies and minds, we can still pursue our goals, and we can still savour the beauty of being alive. By choosing not to ‘fight’ we can embrace peace and come home from the war.
Dr. Rob Rutledge is a Radiation Oncologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, specializing in breast, prostate and pediatric cancers. He is also an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University.
In 1999, Rob co-created the ‘Skills for Healing’ Cancer Weekend Retreats. These weekend support groups teach a powerful and integrated approach to the cancer diagnosis and ways to heal at levels of body, mind and spirit. To date, more than 1,600 people have attended the retreats in over 20 cities across Canada and abroad.
Rob also leads the Healing and Cancer Foundation, a Registered Charity, that freely offers educational videos, documentaries, and webcasting seminars – and he is co-author of a book called The Healing Circle, which captures the teachings and inspirational stories from the weekend retreats.
In 2010, Rob received Cancer Care Nova Scotia’s Award for Excellence in Patient Care and, in 2006 Doctors Nova Scotia presented him with the Health Promotion Award in recognition of his contribution to physician health and health promotion in cancer patients.