LeShan believes that the traditional psychological approach does not help cancer patients. When he used therapy based on the usual questions, (What is wrong with the person? How did she or he get that way? What can be done about it?) the person felt temporarily better but the outcome was always the same- they died.
LeShan developed a different approach focussed on the questions:
"What is right with this person? What is her special and unique ways of being, creating, and relating, that are her own and natural ways to live? What is her unique song to sing that when she is singing it, she is glad to get up in the morning, and glad to go to bed at night? What style of life would give her zest, enthusiasm and involvement? How can we work together to bring her dream into manifestation, and release blocks and other obstacles?" When the person was able to do this, LeShan discovered that they went into a long lasting remission.
LeShan's earlier research, reported in his book, You Can Fight for Your Life (Evans, 1980), found common clues suggesting a cancer prone individual. The strongest clue concerned the loss of the person's reason for being, or sense of purpose. The second was an inability on the part of the individual to express anger or resentment. The third factor was continuous emotional tension over the death of a parent.
The loss of hope that you can ever live your own life in a meaningful dynamic passionate and engaged way that makes a difference in the world, says LeShan, weakens your immune system and defeats any chance of recovery. LeShan evokes W. H. Auden's definition of cancer as "a foiled creative fire."
"Over and over again, I found this pattern of loss of hope in between 70 and 80 percent of my cancer patients and in only 10 percent or so of the control group."
Psychiatrist Jean Shinoda Bolen, inspired by LeShan's work, began giving a series of workshops for breast cancer patients which eventually became the book, Close to the Bone, Life Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning (Scribner, 1996).
"Illness is both a soul shaking and soul-evoking event for the patients and for all others for whom the patient matters. We lose all innocence, we know vulnerability, we are no longer who we were before this event and we will never be the same. We are in uncharted terrain, and there is no turning back. Illness is a profound soul event and yet this is virtually ignored and unaddressed. Instead, everything seems to be focussed on the part of the body that is sick, damaged, failing or out of control."
Bolen describes the experience of a life threatening illness as a descent into the underground, where we can undergo numerous ordeals, find strength and courage and have the potential to be reborn into a new sense of self and purpose.
Bolen uses myths and stories to describe the incredible and terrifying journey that anyone with a life threatening illness embarks on, willing or not. With understanding or not. With profound spiritual growth or not.
Nowhere is blame for your illness implied (one of those less than useful new age concepts). The complexity of illness can't be understood by facile assumptions about how the person's lifestyle, diet, stress levels or thought patterns somehow produced the cancer.
However, how we respond to illness, what we learn from it and how we engage the journey along the way can certainly impact the outcome. These two writers provide us with many lighted sign posts along the way.
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