The Healing Power of "Why" for Patients With Cancer

One often hears cancer survivors proclaim with pride, honor and dignity, “I never asked why this happened to me.” Unintentionally, this sets the standard for those who follow, creating the unwritten rule that asking why is to admit weakness, to be unfit for battle.

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” - Eugene Ionesco

My guess is that it’s crossed your mind countless times but maybe never crossed your lips. If not, allow me to do it for you: Why?

There, I said it. I hope it brings you even a moment’s relief as it does for me when I get over the strange idea — the origin of which escapes me — that as cancer survivors, we’re not supposed to ask why it happened to us, or to anyone, for that matter. So strong is the backlash against this question that it may as well join the ranks of other unmentionables and simply be referred to as the “W” word.

One often hears cancer survivors proclaim with pride, honor and dignity, “I never asked why this happened to me.” Unintentionally, this sets the standard for those who follow, creating the unwritten rule that asking why is to admit weakness, to be unfit for battle. It’s as if one is about to go AWOL in the war against cancer. As anyone knows, good soldiers do not question their duty, they simply do it. Any good recruit knows that the proper response to “Jump!” is not “What for?” but “How high?”

As a psychotherapist, I’m privileged to meet with people in some of their most unguarded moments. During these sessions, their need to understand their suffering is palpable. Sitting like balloons on pins and needles, it’s not hard to get them to pop. When I give a struggling client permission to verbalize the profound question mark they brought into the room, I can feel the shift in energy. I see the relief in their eyes and the burden lightened on their shoulders.

Due to the power of cultural conditioning, many of the people I meet not only need permission, they need me to lead them in the refrain. It’s almost as if they’re seeking assurance that they will not be struck by a lightning bolt for having the audacity to say out loud that which is lodged in their brains. If I have an adventurous soul in my midst, will we chant the mantra: “Why me, why now, why this?”

The reason there is a healing power in “why?” is that it shines a light into the dark recesses of the questioning mind itself. Neuroscience tells us that our minds are wired to scan the happenings around and within, and look for signs of change. It’s an evolutionary skill that helps increase the chance of seeing another sunrise. Trying to tame this curiosity by pushing it below the level of conscious awareness is the psychological equivalent of trying to hold a beach ball under the water, only minus the sun and fun. Allowing fears to surface is to exhale the inner tension and catch our breath as we prepare for the next wave to wash over us.

In my own survivorship, I’ve found that when it comes to the big ticket questions in life, the advice from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke keeps things in perspective. In addressing a struggling young poet, he advises:

“Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

Coming to terms with being a survivor of cancer means, in large part, the willingness to live the question of why this happened to me. It is making peace with that “distant day” and finding the courage to stumble toward it, if we have to. When we understand that seeking is fundamental to healing, we turn the very question back on itself: Why ask why? Why not?