What does It Mean to Heal?

July 15, 2020 Patti Carey, Class Facilitator and Patti Kwok, PhD, ARNP, Swedish Cancer Institute

Patti Carey : As a cancer survivor, I would like to hear your advice for the transition time from “patient” to “survivor?”

Patti Kwok: I think about this question a lot. The popular notion based on the national guidelines is that when the physical treatment is done the patient should be ready to transition and move on.  However, my forty years of experience as an oncology nurse has taught me that there are many challenging transitions in life that take time and deep inner reflection. If people don't make time for this ongoing process, then it’s easy to get caught up in fears and anxiety and quickly try to “fix” everything and “get over it.”

We are all survivors. Perhaps the biggest transitions in life are birth and death. People aren’t afraid of dying, they are more often afraid of living. Processing a life-threatening diagnosis, not jumping over it but “seeing through”, takes time. For the cancer patient, the transition begins the moment you hear the diagnosis. Life is never the same. It makes sense to utilize the survivorship clinic during any phase of this journey.

CAREY: How do you describe healing vs. curing?

KWOK: I like this question. The question asks me to contemplate the word “heal” vs. the only acceptable outcome in our culture “cure.” The latter is unrealistic. We don’t have this kind of knowledge and certainty about anything in life. The word cure only makes me anxious because I am forced to ask more questions of life. Cured from cancer; then what, and then what, and then what? Healing asks us to examine our rich holistic inner lives. The actual treatment is beyond chemotherapy, radiation, surgery. We don’t save people’s lives; we help them heal. To reflect on what healing means vs. the superficial word of “cure” helps me live and love more fully away from human-invented fears. We are all heroes and there is no healing hierarchy. Suffering has no hierarchy.

CAREY: What are the most common stumbling blocks for people moving on after treatment?

KWOK: The most common stumbling blocks are things external to our true selves—all the unrealistic messages and promises that come from everywhere that keep us stuck. Fear of cancer recurrence doesn’t address the bigger existential fear: who am I, who am I with this diagnosis, and what does it mean to have a human body that will die of something anytime? We must learn to access our own internal healing powers in addition to the “prescribed” treatment. We must find communities of healing beyond the visits to the doctor’s office.

The attachment to the idea that we have control over most of our lives, the attachment to this idea, is what causes us to suffer the most.

That is why you and I teach from this perspective:

  • Ways to feel safe in the body
  • Illness is a normal phase of life
  • Naming fears help them lose their grip on us

With this focus we begin to see that we live so much of our lives under other peoples’ control and manipulation, keeping us from our true freedom.

The poem Allow addresses this concept as well.



There is no controlling life. Try corralling a lightning bolt, containing a tornado. Dam a stream and it will create a new channel. Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet. Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground.

The only safety lies in letting it all in –

The wild and the weak-

Fear, fantasies, failures, and success.

When loss rips off the doors of the heart

Or sadness veils your vision with despair,

Practice becomes simply bearing the truth.

In the choice to let go of your known way of being,

The whole world is revealed to your new eyes.

-Danna Faulds


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