Being cured and being healed are two different things, and one can happen without the other.
Kathy LaTour is a breast cancer survivor, author of The Breast Cancer Companion and co-founder of CURE magazine. While cancer did not take her life, she has given it willingly to educate, empower and enlighten the newly diagnosed and those who care for them.
I met Marilyn when she joined my breast cancer support group, and I have to tell you I was totally against it. The "group," as we called it, was the result of my surgeon hearing from her patients that they were finding that the breast cancer experience wasn't over when it was supposed to be over. Despite her patients being finished with treatment, they were still struggling emotionally, so she started a group in her office facilitated by a professional therapist.
We were primarily young women. I was the furthest out and the craziest, prompting many a quizzical look when I burst into tears at the slightest feeling. My surgeon had asked me to join the group at my two-year check up. She said I was fine, and I burst into tears.
"If I am cured, why do I feel so rotten? I can't sleep and I am crying all the time, "I told her. I felt like I was in no man's land. Did I have cancer or had I had cancer? I joined the group that week.
I had done everything right when I was diagnosed. I researched all my options; I asked good questions; I found a doctor I loved after calls that even included a friend's mother who worked for a surgeon in another state. I had no reason to believe the cancer wasn't gone; I had made it through some really rough chemotherapy and come out the other side. I should have been celebrating, but I could barely function. My body had betrayed me.
It ended up being Marilyn who saved me. When our facilitator, Jan, initially asked if Marilyn could join the group, we all said sure. Then Jan mentioned that Marilyn had been dealing with metastatic disease for two years. “Oh no,” I remember saying vehemently. We were all well and we weren't going to recur, and her presence would just be a reminder to her that there were other women who would live. At the time, long life with metastatic disease was rare.
Of course, my real reason was not her feelings, but mine. I didn't want to know any women who were dealing with recurrence.
Then a week later, one of our regulars learned that her cancer was back. The next week, we had two members with metastatic disease. So when Jan asked again about Marilyn, we were even eager for her to join because we needed someone who could guide us through the months to come on how to be there for the women we had come to love.
Marilyn joined us the next week, and I found in her the answers to questions that would help me understand what had happened to me. First, let me describe Marilyn. She had the biggest smile I had ever seen. Literally her smile went from ear to ear and her eyes glistened, too. Drugs? Nope, this was just Marilyn. She had a great sense of humor and kept us all cheering her on in her quest to live longer than the doctor told her. They had a pact that when he thought she had about six months left, he would tell her to start getting her photo albums ready. She had the ability to keep her cancer in perspective, something I learned she had worked at diligently, and as we grew to know and love each other, I received some of that wisdom.
She helped me see that cancer was a dual journey, one medical and one emotional, and these journeys each had to be taken to truly absorb the experience, which ultimately led to healing. Being cured and being healed were two distinct parts of the experience, and you could be cured without being healed and you could be healed without being cured. But healing required doing the heart work – feeling the emotions and grief of what cancer had taken and letting the new person emerge who would be you after cancer.
From that point onward, I began to be aware of my feelings. I stopped stuffing them and started feeling them. I could also see how other women were not feeling what had happened to them, and even if they were considered cured, how much pain lingered from the unresolved feelings.
I could fairly easily understand those women who were cured and not healed, because I could see the energy it took to keep from feeling. But I still had problems with journeys like Marilyn's. She would never be cured, and it was likely she would die sooner rather than later, and yet she was healed. This amazing mystery had me asking how.
"There are worse things than dying," Marilyn told me. It stopped me in my tracks. How could that be? My fear was leaving my child. How do I cope with it when I can barely keep the thought in my head?
Marilyn explained that dying without having lived is much worse than just dying, and when we are locked up in our feelings because of our fear, it keeps us from loving and being present in this life while we can.
Since then, I have seen women who chose to heal, whether or not they are cured. It has been perhaps the greatest gift of cancer -– and of life
Marilyn died healed. Not cured, healed, and I would take that over cure any day.