In 1978 I started a form of group therapy for people with cancer, called Exceptional Cancer Patients, or ECAP. I began this work after a long period of unhappiness and pain, during which I had to confront my limitations as a physician. I learned that patients do sometimes die, a reality not taught in medical school, where success is defined in terms of making people better. Because people often don’t get better and everyone eventually does die, I and many other doctors are made to feel like failures. We do not know what to do with these and other feelings, so most physicians choose to stop feeling. I, however, couldn’t do this.
I was brought up to share and express my feelings. I knew it was self-destructive to put a lid on all of one’s emotions. So I went to workshops to learn how to deal with my pain. At one of them I sat next to a woman patient of mine with breast cancer, who turned to me and said, “I need to know how to live between office visits.” That single sentence changed my life. I knew there was a need for me to teach people how to live, to be success oriented no matter how great the challenge. Fortunately, I didn’t realize how little I knew about living or I might never have set out to do what I did.
I decided to send one hundred letters to my office patients who had cancer, inviting them to come to a group meeting. The weekly meetings were to help people live a longer and better life. I mailed out the invitation expecting hundreds of replies. I assumed everyone who received a letter would tell several other cancer patients and bring them along to the meeting. I was shocked, however, when only a dozen people showed up at the first meeting.
I called the group Exceptional Cancer Patients because they were willing to take on the challenge of life, to go from “why me?” to “try me!” Exceptional patients, or survivors, refuse to participate in defeat. Exceptional patients have overcome the pressures, conflicts, and habits that lead others to act in a defeatist manner. Instead, every thought and deed of these patients advances the cause of life.
Many of those who didn’t respond to my letter had already given up hope. But those who did reply felt challenged and ignited by their own mortality. Their “reset button” had been pushed by my invitation. If they were going to die, these people determined, then they would also live fully until their death. Exceptional patients manifest the will to live in its most potent form. They take charge of their lives even if they never did before, and they focus on health and peace of mind.
Have The Courage To Change
The need to embrace change was crucial for the patients in my group. As I wrote this thought, a book entitled Executive in Passage by Douglas Marrs is was delivered to my door.
Opening it, I read in the epilogue, “If we do have the courage to embrace a change, however prompted, and rise to the opportunity, we can take an active part in the creation of our lives…. It takes wisdom to see that what appears as the darkest moment is actually the door to renewal…. To discover the true nature of reality for oneself and to discover that it is love –is a remarkable experience for one lifetime.”
The cancer patients who responded to my letter were people who accepted their mortality, not as a “death sentence” but rather as a stimulus to live. One of them, a school teacher with extensive cancer, came to our group saying she had been told to stop teaching because of her weakened condition. She said, “If I stop teaching I’ll die.” I told her to continue to do the work she loved. She returned to her classroom and often sat on the floor to teach because she felt so weak. Her students sat around her. The cancer responded dramatically to her determination to live again and to take charge of her life.
People whose conditions had been stable or deteriorating for a long time, suddenly began getting well before my eyes. I worried they were getting well for illegitimate reasons. Unless you are a physician you may not understand. I had not treated these patients medically in any way, and yet they were looking better. I felt I had deceived them into health and that we had to stop meeting. They said, “You don’t understand because you are a doctor. You’ve given us hope, peace of mind, and control of our lives. That is why we look and feel better.”
I sat back and began to learn from these exceptional people who were living up to their potential.
I learned about survival and life from them. I suggest, if you want to learn how to live, that you put a sign in your window stating: “I give lessons on how to live–certified by Bernie Siegel, M.D.” with a two hour time period for the meeting. A group will come. Sit them down and introduce them to each other. Then you must do something very important. Sit down and keep your mouth firmly closed. In three months they will all thank you for transforming their lives, and you will not have said a thing.
In essence this is what happened to me. They came to learn how to live and taught themselves. What led them to change was getting their “reset buttons” pushed, that place inside which is a source of strength and resolve.
I have long debated with God items that need improving. One is that all human beings should come with a “reset button” on their chest. Then in times of difficulty we would press the button and our feelings would change. God, however, has another system. When you hurt enough, you’ll change. How you change is crucial!
Wake Up To Your Own Mortality
Consider these three cases, each with a valuable lesson. A middle aged man works for 15-years making nuclear weapons but hates his job and what he does every day. A young man grows up and longs to be a violinist, but his family says, “No, we want you to be a lawyer.” A woman says, “I’ll make this marriage work if it kills me.”
Each was diagnosed with cancer. The first man quit his job and now lives in the mountains of Colorado. The second, when told he had a year to live, quit his law practice, picked up his violin and started to play in an orchestra. Instead of dying of a brain tumor, he is alive and well, playing his violin. The woman who told her husband a few things is now out in the world challenging life, involved in politics and discovering herself.
What pushed their buttons? They suddenly learned of their mortality and that postponing gratification indefinitely wasn’t going to work.
If you were to ask them what their diseases meant to them, each one would tell you it was a “gift.”
The Bible tells us adversity heals and afflictions open us up to a new reality. My parents gave me a sense that the universe was on a schedule and that God was working to get me onto it. When events arose that I did not expect or like, my parents would say, “We’ll see.” I began to wait for good things to follow, and sure enough, they did. Thanks to these two words, life became a series of challenges, and I could not possibly see myself as a failure.
So I ask everyone to use the “serenity prayer” approach to life. “God grant me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Learn To Say “No”
Those who are prone to illness often do not know how to say “no.” When asked by a friend to do something they don’t want to do, they say “yes!” When asked how they are feeling, they always say “fine,” even when it isn’t true. When asked, they say they can’t experience feelings or that they experience them in unhealthy ways.
This is self-destructive behavior which sends the body a message to die. I remember one man who entered our ECAP group because of cancer. He was submissive and never expressed his feelings. One day something I said caused him to raise his voice in anger at me. (I had hoped that this would happen.) As his display of emotion ended, he realized we were both still alive and that I respected him more.
A few weeks later he announced his business had improved and he was hiring new people. He wasn’t sure if he could come to the meetings any longer. I asked what had happened. He said he had begun to speak up. When a customer was rude to his secretary he said, “You can’t talk to my secretary like that. You can do business elsewhere.” His relationships improved along with his business. People now knew who he was and who they were dealing with.
Another gentleman with asthma and cancer was always so angry he yelled at television programs and commercials. He refused to buy German and Japanese cars because of the Holocaust and World War II. I suggested he couldn’t buy American cars either, because we had dropped the atomic bomb. By the time our talk ended, there were no cars anywhere one could buy. The truth is there will always be events we do not like.
Life’s challenge is to discover how we can maintain equanimity even when things aren’t going our way. Suppose you arrive promptly for a 1 p.m. business appointment, only to be kept waiting until 2:30 p.m. You leave upset because your day has been “ruined.” Then on your car radio you hear that the bridge on your route home has just collapsed. What saved you from being on it? It was the delayed appointment! When things go wrong, it’s best to examine what good can come from them. When our desires are frustrated, we must ask whether there may be a hidden purpose. The flat tire that leads you to miss a plane crash has saved your life. You might well embrace the tire, bronze it, and hang it over your fireplace, with a sign beneath it reading “Spiritual Flat-Tire.”
By not judging events you can get on the universe’s schedule. What survivors are teaching us is how to live in the moment.
When exceptional people learn they have a limited time on this planet, they start living as if they were going to die. One woman I know has twice been told she was going to die within a few months. Each time she started doing the things she loved and she didn’t die.
The key to survival is learning to use the difficulties life presents us with as a new beginning through which we find new relationships.
When I meet people dealing with life-threatening problems I ask, “Do you want to live to be one hundred?” I want to know their attitude towards life and its challenges. If they respond positively, then I know there is some hope for them.
Survivors have certain personality traits also. They can be childlike and enjoy the moment as well as be serious when appropriate. They are spontaneous and authentic. They can behave that way because they have the self-love and self-esteem that enables them to be who they are, which allows the inner child to express itself.
If you haven’t been brought up in a family where love was given, it is up to you to find it within yourself. Finding your true self and the way in which you want to love the world is really what your journey is all about.
People who volunteer their time to serve others (not related to them) out of love are healthier. Unconditional love rewards the giver and the receiver. We all more love, even the most affluent among us.
I have come to know many peoples’ life stories, so forgiveness and love are easier for me. I also know the need we have for caring. I recommend installing a grading system at home and work. Put up a sign which says, “If you are less that a B+, let me know and I’ll hug you.” If someone asks how you are, respond with a grade. If it is lower than a B+, you should receive a hug. You cannot cure everyone’s problems, but by caring you can make a difference.
Healing Through Listening
I recommend that families meet every week for two hours to share joys and sorrows. This process facilitates healing through listening.
The significance of listening can not be underestimated. Helen Keller, blind and deaf since childhood, said that if given a choice she would prefer blindness to being deaf. Most of us are afraid to be blind; healing, however, really comes with listening. If you are deaf, you can learn to listen with your heart.
A physician once sent me this equation, “Stress divided by cross section area = strain.” He explained that a 10 pound weight placed on a piece of string will break the string, however 10 pounds placed on a clothes line will not break it. By sharing an unbearable stress with a stronger support, preferably a group, the stress is reduced to a bearable weight. By sharing the pain, you heal yourself.
How can a problem lead to healing? I ask people to describe their disease so I will know what they are experiencing. The metaphors they use to describe their condition always apply to their lives. “Eating me up alive,” “failure to be understood,” “inconvenienced and controlled,” “lost,” “painful,” and “invisible” are all common answers. Many complain they feel like a “doormat,” that their parents committed suicide, that they must have been a failure as a child, or that their parents are driving them crazy telling them to get well. Still others blame their problem on the death of a loved one who recently died.
Then there are those who view their problem as a gift, a “wake-up” call, a blessing, and a new beginning. This is the attitude of survivors, those who have courageously learned that afflictions heal and adversity opens one up to a new reality. They let their inner child out to find joy and heal the past. They allow their intuitive side to step forward and guide them.
I know from experience how our dreams and spontaneous drawings can reveal both psychological and physical information which can help guide us and keep us healthy.
Do not be afraid to open up to this inner awareness. It may be dark inside, but open the box and look inside and find your true self. It may well be that our interest in exploring outer space is related to our fear of exploring inner space and nature.
Carl Jung said, “the future is unconsciously prepared long in advance.” By our daily actions we create the future, and since we are creating it we can be aware of it. Open up to this knowledge and use it to your benefit.
Someone once said to me, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Why not use this universal knowledge and energy to guide you? (Think of the book being brought to my door as I write this article.) So many of us have stopped responding to the inner messages. We have a lid on our dreams and feelings. Let them out. Once again know what it is like to feel things and let them guide you.
Many addictions in our society are due to our lack of parental love. The addictive substance replaces the parent and gives us feelings we long for.
Instead of addictions, achieve those feelings in a natural way. Love the child within and heal that child. It is up to each individual to heal himself. The world doesn’t have to change for you to be happy. Respond to what happens inside you. Look into the darkness, turn towards it, embrace it and out of it will come healthy growth and light.
To Your Own Self Be True
A young man with AIDS was flown home to die. When he got home his mother began to feed and nurture him. He said, “I looked for someone carrying a torch who would guide me to recovery.” Years later he is alive and well, passing the torch on to others.
Just as I know many people who recovered from cancer, I know many who also recovered from AIDS. They all sound alike when you ask them why they didn’t die. They decided to live to the fullest, not waiting in fear until the day of their death. One such patient says, “I decided to die only once. I decided to make everyday precious. I’m a landscape gardener and I’m going home to make the world beautiful. If you live in your heart, magic happens.”
The Bible implies that to save one’s life is to lose it and to lose it may be to save it. What is the point of this paradoxical message? If you choose a life that is molded by others, you must be willing to lose that life to save your inner life. In other words, you must discover your true self to save your life. Self-esteem, self-worth and self-love result, and life becomes a process of healing. Let me share two stories.
I know a physician with extensive cancer who started on a path of self-healing and awareness. He used what the medical profession had to offer him, but he also went beyond the standard traditional care. He says, “I learned a tremendous amount about myself and have made major changes in my life based on what I have learned. I now look at everything differently and am much happier and less angry then before. My medical friends can’t figure me out, and I’ve had many inquiries about what I am doing to look so well. However, my colleagues aren’t interested in hearing what I’m really doing because they think it’s a lot of bunk, so now I just joke that the secret is celery tops.”
The second story concerns a state senator, also with extensive cancer, who is doing remarkably well. He relates the story that one day he stopped the State Senate for 15 minutes and addressed each senator and told them of his love for them individually and collectively. The love he generated turned 20 raging bull-like senators into warm, sensitive, caring people. No one ever told them that they loved them before. They were prepared for everything except that. He recalls: “They melted as I did. Love heals–love works–love changes lives. It was a wonderful, tearful experience that I’ll always remember.”
Both of these men “lost” something to gain something. They transcended expectations to forge new ground for themselves.
Tags: good living, happiness