In a lifetime rich with learning, few experiences have taught me as much as cancer. But I still have one burning question. What is the meaning of cancer? And whose answers can I believe? That’s the kind of conundrum you take to someone like Marianne Williamson.
After three trips though cancer, I’ve discovered I’m a member of an invisible army of survivors. Nearly 14.5 million of us with a history of cancer were alive in America in January 2014, according to the American Cancer Society. These days in America, two in three cancer patients live five years or longer—a success rate that would have been a pipe dream just a few years ago.
However, the blessing of life arrives with problems. It turns out that we cancer survivors are magnets for unsought advice from every would-be diagnostician, biochemist, crystal healer, kibitzer and conspiracy theorist we chance to meet. People mean well. But it’s wearing.
My pet peeve is folks who tell me I caused my own cancer by holding on to old resentments. In Los Angeles, where I live, this opinion is common. I trace it back to readings and misreadings of the writings of New Age thinkers such as Louise Hay (You Can Heal Your Life), Caroline Myss (Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can) and Rhonda Byrne (The Secret).
Ideas that sound lovely in the abstract (your thoughts create your reality, including “dis-ease”) can turn mean and hurtful in practice, especially when aimed at someone grappling with a life-threatening illness.
The adult children of a friend of mine forbade her to mention her Stage IV ovarian cancer in their presence. They told her she was “feeding” the cancer by acknowledging it.
A woman I met at a conference nodded sympathetically as I described the sadness of knowing that that a dear friend was near death from ovarian cancer, whereas, 15 years after diagnosis, here I stood.
“I wonder what in you wanted to live, and what in her didn’t?” the woman mused.
Statements like these are rude—but are they wrong? I wanted clarity, and Williamson agreed to help me talk it out.
Williamson is, of course, an avatar of New Age spirituality who has been lecturing since the early 1980s on the spiritual text, A Course in Miracles. Her 1992 best-seller, A Return to Love,was the first of a dozen popular books she’s penned. In 2014 she ran for Congress, taking on such issues as Citizens United, income inequality and the pollution of our food supply. In discussing cancer, we moved from spirituality to medicine to politics and back again.
I begin with a true story that always makes my point. A few years back, I met a woman at a chic dinner party in Santa Monica. Told I was undergoing cancer treatment, she smiled brightly and said, “Thank God I don’t store my anger! Would you pass the salmon?”
Williamson’s first response blasts through the phone.“WHAT?”
After a few observations that we agree are off the record, Williamson settles on this reaction: “It’s extraordinary the foolishness that passes for spiritual wisdom these days.”
My next question: If cancer is not a manifestation of my own inner anger, then what is it, and why do people run around quoting thinkers like Williamson to explain it?
“Anyone can be taken out of context, but what I have said is that thought is the creative consciousness for all experience,” she responds. “But that doesn’t mean that the person who contracts the illness is necessarily the one whose consciousness was wrong-minded. For example, a child gets a brain tumor that we know is related to a carcinogen that’s in the river near where that child lives. Did the diseased condition come from consciousness? Absolutely—the fact that we put short-term economic gain before the health and well-being of the living things on this planet.
“But the person who contracts the disease is often the person who reflects it back to society. Great souls have contracted cancer,” she reminds me. “The idea that there is some direct linear connection, always easy to detect, or even necessarily there, between the person who contracts an illness and their own thinking—the situation is much deeper and more complicated than that.
“Now, that is not to ignore the holistic paradigm—body, mind and spirit,” Williamson continues. “There is serious work to be done, whether the condition is illness or any other problem. Part of my medicine involves a change in my thinking. But that’s different from saying, I caused this.
“Often people think the work on consciousness is to go back and ask, ‘How did I create this?’ The issue in life is not just how or whether I created something, but how am I handling it right now? How do I work a miracle now?”
“So what should I say the next time someone tells me I caused my own cancer?” I ask.
She considers. “You put your hand over your heart—remember people speak to you on the level from which you’e speaking—and, without judgment, you say, “That comment was so unhelpful.”
I don’t doubt that miracles happen among cancer patients. I’m one of them. But I find it hard to believe anyone would bypass chemo and surgery for affirmations or crystals or mangosteen. Conversely, I catch shade from folks who wouldn’t get chemo if, well, their lives depended on it. What really heals us, and why do we snipe at each other about it?
I ask Williamson how holistic healing works. Do we really expect forgiveness or meditation to heal cancer? Again, the picture she paints is more nuanced and convincing than I expect.
“According to A Course in Miracles,” she begins, “the fact that we identify primarily with the body rather than with the spirit puts a stress on the body that the body was not meant to carry—and that’s where sickness comes from.
“It’s the mind [not the body] that has an infinite capacity to do what we aren’t even asking it to do,” Williamson continues. “That’s why meditation and forgiveness are such an important part of your medicine. Forgiveness is a willingness to extend our perception of an event, particularly of a person, beyond what the physical senses perceive to what the heart knows to be true. It is a shift into the quantum field beyond time and space. When I shift my consciousness into the quantum field, it gives my body the capacity to relax in that moment. And in that relaxation lies restorative power.”
I think of the heart-lung bypass machine used in surgery, allowing the organs to take a break while repairs go on. The analogy makes sense for me. And I appreciate that Williamson is not saying, “Meditation good; pills bad.”
“It’s called integrative care for a reason,” she goes on. “Sometimes people go to the doctor and the doctor gives them a medicine—none of which is a hundred percent guaranteed, by the way—and they take notes. They’re so careful. ‘Am I supposed to take it in the morning or the afternoon, do I take it with food or without food?’ Whereas with meditation, I’ll say, ‘Do you meditate?’ and people will say, ‘Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.’ Meditation is medicine, just like your other medicines. You should take it just as seriously.”
“Let me understand, though,” I say. “No one is guaranteeing that you’re going to have a physical cure, that your cancer is going to be totally gone one morning because you meditated, right?”
“One of the best ways to heal the body is to accept the reality of death,” Williamson counters. “We’re all leaving here. Some of us are taking the 10:05 and some of us will be on the 11:20, but we’re all leaving. And our over-attachment to the physical body, since the physical senses tell us that that’s all our life is, is part of that stress on the body.
“Your true self is deathless, and the more you identify with that rather than your body, then the more you’re programming not just your subconscious but every cell in your body to be the perfect container for your soul’s work this lifetime. Now, that might mean you live a short time or a long time. Part of the healing is the realization that that’s not what ultimately matters.”
Williamson pauses. “If we’re supposed to be here for another 10 or 20 years— if that would be the highest level that life takes for all living things—that’s what’s going to happen. Cancer’s not taking you.”
After our goodbyes, Williamson’s words leave a sense of peace behind. I may never understand the meaning of cancer, but on balance I’m grateful for the adventure. Life and death on an infinite continuum, with a chance to expedite a miracle or two? I can live with that.
Anne Stockwell is founder and president of Well Again: Adventures in Life Beyond Cancer.