Michael Lerner on getting cancer

Date: Thu, 5 Jun 2003 15:35:52 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: Michael Lerner on getting cancer


About ten years ago, the MacArthur Foundation gave one of its genius
awards to a wonderful fellow named Michael Lerner, who works with people
diagnosed with cancer. His description of what he would do if faced with
a cancer diagnosis seems to me extremely helpful:

What an Expert Would Do If He Got Cancer

Michael Lerner’s Observations

People often ask what I would do if I got cancer,” says MacArthur
Foundation “genius” grant recipient Michael Lerner, Ph.D., a founder of
the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, California, and author of
Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary
Approaches to Cancer.
Frankly, I?m not sure. I don’t think anyone can know for sure. A
cancer diagnosis unleashes powerful unpredictable emotions. But here are my
“I would pay a great deal of attention to the inner healing process in
me that I hoped a cancer diagnosis would trigger in me. I would give
careful thought to the meaning of my life, what I had to let go of and
what I wanted to keep.
“I would give careful thought to choosing a mainstream
oncologist. I wouldn’t need someone with wonderful empathic skills
because I have other people to provide that. But I would want a doctor who
is basically kind, is on top of the medical literature regarding my
disease, takes the time to answer my questions, understands that I want to
be deeply involved in treatment decisions, supports my use of
complementary therapies, and sticks with me medically and emotionally if I
were facing death.
“I would use conventional therapies that offered a real chance for recovery, but I would probably not use experimental therapies or therapies with a low probability of success that were highly toxic or compromised my capacity to live and die as I choose.
“I would use complementary therapies. I would look for a good support group and a psychotherapist experienced in working with people with cancer. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years but I would look for ways to enhance my nutrition. I would meditate and practice yoga more often, and spend more time in nature, taking walks in the woods, by the ocean, and in the mountains.
“I would definitely use traditional medicine, both herbs and acupuncture.
“I would strive for life and recovery, with every tool and resource I could find. But I would also work to face death in a way that deepened my growth and led to some resolution.
“I would spend time with people I value, and with books,
writing, music, and God. I would do everything that I could do that I
didn’t want to leave undone. I would not waste time with old
obligations, though I would try to extricate myself from them decently.
“I would try to live my own life in my own way. I would
try to accept the pain and the sorrow inherent in my situation, but I
would look searchingly for the beauty, wisdom, and joy.”

Quoted in Ram Dass,
Still Here – Embracing
Aging, Changing, and Dying
Riverhead Books, New York (2000)
pp. 74-75.

Commonweal Cancer Help Program

This program founded in 1985 by a group of health professionals including Michael Lerner, Ph.D., author of Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer, offers weeklong residential retreats for people with cancer in a beautiful, bucolic, Pacific coast setting. Everyone who attends must be under the care of an oncologist. Then, in addition to conventional treatment, the Cancer Help Program offers educational seminars on mainstream and complementary cancer care, plus a low-fat vegetarian diet, and psychological nurturance: a daily support group, art projects, poetry, massages, journal writing, gardening, meditation, yoga, and walks along the Pacific coast. For information, contact

The Cancer Help Program
P.O. Box 316
Bolinas, CA 94924

Capacity is limited.

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