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The Healing Journey: Incorporating Psychological and Spiritual Dimensions into the Care of Cancer Patients

by A.J. Cunningham OC, PhD CPsych.

Read the full article in Current Oncology 


Research on the factors that promote healing of the body through mind and spirit is at a very early stage. Reliance on experimental designs seems premature; we need much more exploratory research to identify relevant variables and useful therapeutic approaches before applying to them the same methods used to evaluate drugs. The Healing Journey is a program that has been in operation since 1982 at the Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto, Ontario. Observational data collection, followed by qualitative analysis has demonstrated benefits for many cancer patients.


Suffering is a mental reaction to events perceived as unwanted. Much of the suffering cancer causes comes from reflecting on the diagnosis and what it implies, rather than directly from the disease itself. Cancer is thus an existential crisis, not simply a physical problem. If we consider the task of the health care professional to be assisting healing, and “healing” in the broadest sense to mean the relief of suffering, then various approaches can be used to help the patient, who may be extremely anxious for his or her life.

The usual medical strategy is to work directly on the body, attempting to remove the cancer and alleviate symptoms, thus eliminating or minimizing the physical cause of the suffering. A psychological approach is also feasible and, ideally, complements the medical, helping people to change their mental reaction to the situation by modifying the internal monologue and the distress thus engendered. A “spiritual” level in the healing of suffering is also available, and it has a long history in traditional cultures, although it is little understood by medical science. “Spiritual” healing entails helping the suffering person to connect with an aspect of self that has been labelled in many different ways: the spiritual self, the Divine within, God, the Tao, the Universal Intelligence or Source, and so on. Healing at the spiritual level can mean gaining a sense of being an immortal part of an underlying order, against which the experience of any threat to the body is perceived as much less important.

Although psychological and spiritual approaches are not currently part of treatment protocols in most Western hospital settings, much can be done therapeutically at those levels to relieve suffering. Healing at the psychological and spiritual levels requires active participation by the patient (a barrier for some). The process is one of learning to react differently to situations and of eventually seeing oneself in a new way. It is, in essence, self-healing. A teacher is typically needed; thus, the therapist in this kind of healing has an educational role, in addition to a supportive and interpretive one.

As in all learning, it is logical to start with simple concepts and techniques and to progress to more sophisticated ones. Also (as in any acquisition of skills), the learner’s aptitude and motivation for learning self-healing varies greatly, and programs for teaching it need to take account of this variation.

This brief article outlines a program—called The Healing Journey—for teaching self-healing to cancer patients. The Healing Journey program has been in operation continuously since 1982 at a large cancer treatment and research centre. Its main purpose is to use psychological and spiritual ideas and practices to help cancer patients and family members cope better with the disease. In recent years, as more intensive therapy aimed at inducing substantial change has been added to the program, we have investigated the possibility that it may prolong life in some participants 1.

 Read the full article in Current Oncology 




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One Response to The Healing Journey: Incorporating Psychological and Spiritual Dimensions into the Care of Cancer Patients

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