Healing the Spirit and Soul of Cancer Patients


May 31, 2024

No items found.

by Michael Lerner, Commonweal President

We just completed our 223rd week-long Commonweal Cancer Help Program. Most staff and board members at Commonweal hold the Cancer Help Program as the deepest work we do. I would say you can find equally deep work woven throughout much of Commonweal’s work. But given that we have devoted 38 years to offering the Cancer Help Program, the question remains—why do people come to spend a week with us?

The simplest answer I can give is that while conventional medicine can treat the body, it cannot heal the spirit or the soul. The spirit is the part of us that moves upward to our highest hopes. The soul is the part of us that stays close to the body, that remembers all its pain and suffering, and that needs to grieve and to be heard.

So when the spirit flags under the burden of illness and treatment, and when the soul years to be held, touched, and heard, the week-long Cancer Help Program retreats are nectar for the spirit and a balm for the soul. Some people are truly reborn here. Many others leave with lesser but still profound transformations.

We all need to heal. We all suffer. But healing must be done with infinitely close attention to the specifics of our grief. Yes, meditation and yoga and massage and good food are all part of the healing. But it is when we have a safe place to speak to the specifics of our grief, and to be heard, and not judged, that the deepest healing begins.

So often, the deepest healing is not about the cancer, nor even about the often great suffering with the treatment. It is about love and loss. It is about our most important relationships, past and present. It is about our spouses, our lovers, our parents, our brothers and sisters, our children, and our friends. It is about how abuse and neglect in childhood marked us for life. It is about how someone we loved with all our heart broke our heart. It is about a child lost to some great sadness.

It’s about what a struggle it is to live in our close family – or how much we suffer from the absence of someone to hold at night or someone to grow old with. It is about precious work or precious community that we had and that we lost.

Finally, it is about our grief about ourselves—our disappointment with ourselves—that somehow after all these years we are still less than we wish we were.

So healing is also necessarily about forgiveness—forgiveness of ourselves and others. It’s about letting go of what we can’t change. It’s about discovering what matters most to us now. And just as healing our grief must address our most secret sorrows in what William Blake called “minute particulars,” so the discovery of what matters now is also about minute particulars. It’s about how we will live, day by day, hour by hour, sometimes even minute by minute. Breathing through what we almost cannot stand. Discovering the immense healing power of being in nature. Finding solace in some small creature that loves us as no human has ever been able to love us.

So often, it is also about finitude. It’s about how to live in the presence of the end of this life – and into the mystery of what lies beyond our last breath. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately—about the nature of mind, about whether the soul survives death. I have come to believe it does, but in ways more complex than a simple guarantee of soul survival. But my beliefs are not what matters here—what matters is your beliefs, your hopes, your fears and your own way through the great portal.

I sometimes say the Cancer Help Program is here to help you live as well as you can for as long as you can (or choose to)—and, if and when the time comes to let go, to go into the mystery the way you would choose to do so. The ancients believed that how we die is a reflection often of how we’ve lived. So considering how we’d like to go, and doing what we can to work toward that, is not a trivial part of healing into life and death.

After 222 Cancer Help Programs, the weeks stay as fresh and profound for me as ever. There is no place I would rather be. There is no pretense. It doesn’t matter what was gained or lost in your life up until now. What matters is this moment—and each of the moments ahead. Love is the greatest healer. Wisdom is the best guide to lasting love. Dedication of our hearts and mind to some service greater than us is what gives us peace. Come join us. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vows a thousand times./ Ours is not a caravan of despair.” (Ibn Arabi).

Come. I mean you. Come.


Collaborative for Health and Environment cancer research and resources

The New School at Commonweal cancer-related library

Image: Hillary Goidell

More From Commonweal