Cancer and the Spirit:
Stories that Hurt, Stories that Heal
Rabbi Edward Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom
Rabbi Edward Feinstein is a two-time cancer survivor; he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1993 and then with a metastasis to his liver in 1998. He shared with the audience the ways in which these experiences deepened his convictions about life and its blessings. We suggest that you listen to the tape of this lecture to fully appreciate the wisdom of his words and the response of the audience members to his warmth, honesty and openness. The following summary presents a few of the key points he raised about living with the impact of a cancer diagnosis.
The meaning of life
A diagnosis of cancer inevitably carries with it the possibility of death. As issues of mortality are raised most people begin to contemplate the meaning of life, or more specifically, "What is the meaning of my life?" Rabbi Feinstein realized the importance of this question as he lived with cancer and suggested that one not wait for a catastrophic illness to answer it. He recommended that all of us, regardless of our current state of health, would do well to understand and clarify what life means to us - and to write it down. He suggested that we write a letter to the people we love to tell them what we have learned from life. This letter should include what we have learned from our struggles and the lessons learned from living with an illness such as cancer. It should include all the things that we want our loved ones to know. When the letter is finished, we then should give it to our loved ones and ask them to add to it, writing their own letters and sharing all these thoughts and reflections with future generations, who also should be encouraged to write what life means to them. These letters will give us the opportunity to pass on our wisdom to those we care about and they will give meaning to our experience, allowing us to live on through time in the hearts and minds of our loved ones.
Healing versus curing
Rabbi Feinstein discussed the difference between curing and healing and noted that healing can take place independently of curing. Curing refers to a biological process that alters the course of disease so that it no longer is a threat to life. Healing, however, is a spiritual process that does not depend on a cure - it is learning to live with disease, to be able to accept it and to be able to live as fully as possible. For many people, the process of healing often produces great insights and blessings that enrich one's life such as developing greater compassion or a deeper connection to family and friends. Healing can take place even in the face of death. It is a process that opens a pathway to allow wholeness and peace. Ultimately, Rabbi Feinstein noted, we cannot stop death, but we can rescue the spirit.
Life should not be faced alone
One of the greatest gifts that we can give to others is to listen to their stories - their thoughts, feelings and experiences - and to share our own. When we listen, we can help alleviate the burden of another person's pain and suffering. When we share our own stories, we give the other person the opportunity to know us, to feel connected and to be present in our lives, especially when we are suffering. No one is strong enough to handle life's difficulties alone. If we do not share with others, we deprive them of the opportunity to help us. Opening the doors and allowing another person to come in can help enrich our lives and make our burdens less heavy.
Cancer is not a punishment
Many people believe that cancer comes as a punishment from God. Rabbi Feinstein believes, however, that cancer comes because we have bodies that are vulnerable and that can become sick. Cancer comes from transmission errors in genetic code, not from a punitive God. No one gets cancer because he or she did something bad and deserves it. Rabbi Feinstein believes that religion should be a source of comfort to those who are suffering and their family members, not as a source of retribution. He noted that rather than try to find the role of God in the cause of illness, one would do better to see God revealed in the expertise and commitment of the doctors and nurses who care for patients and in the compassion and strength of friends and family. Religion used inappropriately can be as destructive to one's spirit as bad medicine can be to the body. Patients should not have to suffer doubly from the disease and from the belief that they are being punished. God is in the healing, not in the onset of disease.
Attitude and cancer
A positive attitude is frequently put forward as a tool to cure oneself of cancer. Bernie Siegal, M.D. often recounts stories of people who have stayed alive out of sheer force of enthusiasm. While these examples sometimes can help a patient initially to feel strong and able to overcome cancer, they also can work against a patient. What if cancer recurs? Does that mean that the patient's attitude wasn't good enough? This line of thinking tends to blame the patient, who usually has enough to cope with just trying to manage the disease and its treatments without having to assume the added burden that somehow his or her attitude contributed to or caused the disease. Attitude doesn't cause cancer; it is a powerful tool, however, and may help one get better. Rabbi Feinstein noted from his own experience that a strong attitude will help a patient get through treatment. It helped him go back to the hospital for his treatments when he knew that even the smell of the disinfectant would make him feel nauseated and ill. A powerful attitude will help patients to continue with painful procedures or treatments and to endure difficult and upsetting side effects. It is important to employ a positive attitude as a means for getting through the more unpleasant aspects of having cancer but it should not be regarded as a substitute for proven treatments or as the reason why cancer developed or why it recurs.
Life is serious
Rabbi Feinstein concluded his presentation by stating that his experience with cancer made him very aware that life is serious and not to be taken lightly. He said, "If you have something you want to do, do it now. If there is someone you want to tell, 'I love you,' get in touch with him or her and say it now. If you want to apologize to someone, do it now. We do not know what will be revealed in the blood test or the CAT scan tomorrow and so we must not put off what is important to us."