Healing and Curing

Key Points

  • Healing is not the same process or outcome as curing.
  • Typically, a cure is a successful medical treatment.
  • Healing is an inner process through which a person becomes whole.
  • Healing is a necessary aspect of curing, but healing can take place in the absence of a cure.

The Starting Point for Informed Choice

The starting point for informed choice in both mainstream and complementary cancer therapies is the patient’s recognition that she or he can play a crucial role in the fight for his/her life.

In his book Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer, Michael Lerner describes both healing and curing, suggesting how they differ and how they relate to each other. We draw from the second chapter of his book.

Healing Goes beyond Curing

There is a fundamental distinction between healing and curing that lies at the heart of all genuinely patient-centered approaches to cancer treatment and care. While the distinction between curing and healing is widely recognized, the significance of these two complementary approaches to recovery from cancer is rarely explained to people with cancer.

As the term is generally used, a cure is a successful medical treatment. In other words, a cure is a treatment that removes all evidence of the disease and allows the person who previously had cancer to live as long as he or she would have lived without cancer. A cure is what the physician hopes to bring to the patient—the external medical process of effecting an outcome in which the disease disappears.

Highlighted Videos

Michael Lerner discusses healing and curing with Healing Journeys.

Author, clinical professor and BCCT advisor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, explains how fixing and helping can make a patient feel weak, empty, or less than others, while "finding what is hidden" assumes that nothing is broken.

Healing, in contrast, is an inner process through which a person becomes whole. Healing can take place at the physical level, as when a wound or broken bone heals. It can take place at an emotional level, as when we recover from terrible childhood traumas or from a divorce or a death of a loved one. It can take place at a mental level, as when we learn to reframe or restructure destructive ideas about ourselves and the world that we have carried. And it can take place at what some would call a spiritual level, as when we move toward God, toward a deeper connection with nature, or toward inner peace and a sense of connectedness.

For any cure to work, the physical healing power of the organism must be sufficient to enable recovery to take place.

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Engaging in Healing

That you can participate in the fight for life with cancer—by working to enhance your own healing and recuperative resources—is a profoundly important discovery for many people. Cancer patients often experience themselves as losing all control of their lives. They become the passive objects of all kinds of decisions and treatments by their medical teams. They feel they must do what their physicians tell them. They may feel that they can do nothing to help themselves. Often, no one has offered them the opportunity to consider the distinction between healing and curing.

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Response to Life-threatening Situations

Highlighted Video

Mark Renneker, M.D. explains the transformative power of cancer.

In Europe, mountain climbing stories have been meticulously collected from climbers who survived life-threatening falls, and these stories may illustrate the complexity of the healing response. As the fall begins, the climber does not scream as falling people do in the movies. Instead, time slows down enormously—as it does for many people just before a car accident. Everything seems to be taking place in slow motion. The survival benefit of this slowing down of time is that the falling climber has every opportunity to notice lifesaving possibilities—handholds or shrubs that might be grasped to break the fall. But if the opportunities for active self-preservation disappear, the faller then enters a state not of panic but of deep peace. He may experience the often-reported process of life recall, with his life flashing back before his eyes. He may hear celestial music. Hitting the ground is usually experienced without pain—he only hears the impact. Hearing is the last sense to disappear into unconsciousness.

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Written by Michael Lerner, PhD, and reviewed by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS; and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on May 2, 2020.

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