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What it means to Heal

Power of Words


Together with Sharon Bray – teacher and author of two books on writing and health – CKN welcomes you to our new Writing Series where Sharon helps readers tap into the healing power of writing during difficult times.  As Sharon puts it, “Your stories matter. You are your stories. Our stories shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. It’s through story that we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our words can touch others’ hearts.”  Follow along with this bi-monthly series with Sharon and please send us your stories….they matter to us.



by Sharon Bray, Ed.D.


“Healing.”  It’s a word that people living with cancer or any other debilitating illness hear often.  It’s also a word that is used in many contexts, whether one’s healing is part of physical or emotional suffering, and the label, “healer,” is often synonymous with those whose help we seek in times of physical, mental or spiritual distress.  What does it mean to heal?  I posed the question to the members of my “Writing Through Cancer” workshop a few weeks ago, because healing is rarely far from consciousness when we think about cancer.  It’s often used in combination with terms like “treatment”, “recovery”, “cure”, or “in remission” or “no evidence of disease.”   Yet “healing” connotes deeper meaning, and what we each consider to be healing may be as unique as the person offering the definition of it.

Google the word “healing” and you’re confronted with more variations in its use by traditional medicine, psychology, religion, alternative healing methods or even my own expressive writing practice, often referred to as “writing as a way of healing.”  My group began with a sampling of dictionary definitions.  Healing or “to heal” was most commonly defined as “the natural process by which the body repairs itself,” “tending to cure or restore to health,” or “to improve or make better.”

In 2005, author Thomas Egnew, LCSW, explored the meaning of healing in “The Meaning of Healing:  Transcending Suffering,” an article appearing in the Annals of Family Medicine.  Egnew was attempting to translate healing into behaviors which could help physicians enhance their abilities as healers.  Although medicine is considered to be a healing profession, he argued that it lacks an operational definition of healing or an explanation beyond the physiological processes related to a cure.  Healing, as he defined it, included three major themes:  wholeness (to become or make whole), narrative (a reinterpretation of life), and spirituality (the search to be human; to transcend).  Egnew argued that medicine has no model of what it means to a person to be whole nor does it give much consideration to spirituality.  The themes found in “healing” do not do much to help define the necessary behaviors that can help doctors facilitate the healing process.

A year after Egnew’s study was published, Jeremy Geffen, MD and oncologist, published his book, The Journey Through CancerHealing and Transforming the Whole Person.  He distinguished seven different levels of healing and argued each is necessary to regaining “wholeness.”  The levels include:

  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 well beyond the traditional concept of healing and focused on the whole person.  A cancer survivor himself, Geffen understood that a serious illness like cancer threatens our very sense of who we believe ourselves to be.  In cancer, all we take for granted can be turned upside down.  Our lives are necessarily redefined, but so are our perspectives on life, death and healing.


Who better, then, to ask what it means to heal or be healed than a group of cancer patients and survivors?  Here are some of the responses written in answer to the question:


“A process of making me whole”

“Peace with what is.”

“Three grandchildren.”

“My mind and soul are 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”

“Things that lead me away from fear toward hope”

“The sunrise and quiet of early morning”


As everyone took a turn to read aloud, I was touched by each expression of what it meant to heal.  Nowhere was there a mention of “cured” or “free of cancer.”  Rather, healing seemed to encompass themes of spirituality, of love and family, and of those small gifts in each day that make our lives complete.  There was, however, one particular response that has stayed with me.  When Mary, living with metastatic cancer, began to share her definition of healing, she prefaced the reading by telling us of the many years she and her family lived in Japan and learned of the Japanese legend of folding 1000 paper cranes in order to have one’s wishes granted.


Cranes are symbols of good luck and longevity in Japan, but the act of folding 1000 cranes took on greater significance after World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima.  The story goes that it began with one victim, a twelve year-old girl, Sadako Sasaki, diagnosed with radiation induced leukemia in 1954, nearly ten years after the atomic bomb had fallen near her home.   Her father told her of the Japanese legend that your wish would be granted if you folded a thousand origami paper cranes.  Sadako began, folding 1000 and then starting a second batch, in hopes her wish for life would come true.  Sadly, she was able to fold only 644 more cranes before she died in the autumn of 1955, only a year after being diagnosed.   Her classmates continued the folding so that Sadako could be buried surrounded by 1,000 paper cranes.

Because of Sadako’ s story the origami cranes took on much greater significance, a wish of  hope and world peace.  Her statue stands at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and is often decorated in strings of origami cranes.    (From:  Newstimes ,December 31, 2012 and The World Post, August 20, 2013)


Three years ago, when Mary was first diagnosed with cancer, her daughter began an ambitious task in support of her mother and began folding paper cranes as her wish for her mother’s healing.  “It took her two years,” Mary said as tears filled her eyes, “but she folded 1000 paper cranes for me.  Every time I look at them, I feel healed.”  Is it any wonder?  As Mary read her story, more than one of us reached for the tissue box on the table.  Without a doubt, healing comes in many different ways for each of us, but at the heart and soul of what it is to heal, is the indispensable love, compassion and caring that comes from those closest to us.


Try writing:  What actions or behaviors would you call “healing?”  How do you experience healing in your everyday life?  Have others been instrumental in your healing?  When you consider your medical experience, have there been one or more doctors whom you would call “healers?”  Why?  What does healing mean to you?


Let us hear from you!  CKN will select and publish your responses to the suggested writing prompts from Sharon.  Send them to Karen Irwin.  500 word limit.



SharonBraySharon Bray, Ed.D., is the author of two books on writing and health: A Healing Journey: Writing Together through Breast Cancer and When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer. Her blog site,, features weekly reflective essays and writing prompts for anyone writing out of illness, pain or life struggle. She leads a number of expressive writing workshops for cancer survivors and teaches creative nonfiction and transformational writing for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto.



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