BLOG: Can Forgiveness “Overcome” Cancer?

I have been troubled lately by the title of a new book called, The  Forgiveness Project: The Startling Discovery of How to Overcome  Cancer, Find Health, and Achieve Peace, by Rev. Dr Michael S. Barry.  It’s not simply that the book borrows the same name of The Forgiveness Project I founded in 2004 — thus creating possible confusion — but more  that the message of the book is the precise reason I feel the concept of  forgiveness is so often misunderstood.

I should state right away that Dr. Barry and myself come from very  different disciplines. My work is informed by journalism and his by faith. As a devout Christian, his book comes from a tradition where forgiveness  is more of an obligation than a choice. In fact information about the book  states, “All religions value forgiveness, but only Christianity requires it”.

Personally I don’t believe there should ever be an obligation, or even an  expectation, to forgive because to suppose that victims should forgive only re-victimizes them.

The organisation I run occupies a very different space — a place of  exploration rather than propagation. While the many stories shared on  our website show that forgiveness can be a useful public health tool, for  many there are limits to forgiveness. For some it is conditional on remorse, for others forgiveness depends upon the gravity of the offense. Above all, the stories show that forgiveness does not come in a one-size  fits all. Not everyone is able to find forgiveness but that does not mean  they are poisoned by bitterness or dream of revenge. For instance, Rami  Elhanan, whose daughter was killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem in  1997, says that he will neither forgive nor forget, but concludes that

“the suicide bomber was a victim just like my daughter, grown crazy out of anger and shame.”

Rev. Dr. Michael Barry is the author of four books  aimed at encouraging and strengthening patients and their caregivers in  their battle with cancer. With “thorough medical, theological, and  sociological research and clinical experience” behind him, he is an  ordained pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church who joined the  Cancer Treatment Centers of America as their Director of Pastoral Care  at Eastern Regional Medical Center when it opened in 2005. “The  Forgiveness Project: The Startling Discovery of How to Overcome  Cancer, Find Health, and Achieve Peace” claims to be a book which  presents scientific findings in easy-to-understand, accessible language  and offers practical steps to help Christians let go of past wrongs and find  peace.

I don’t deny the link between forgiveness and physical and mental well  being. There is plenty of evidence to show that holding on to unresolved  resentment for perceived transgressions depletes immune function and  causes enormous physical stress to the whole body. Indeed forgiving  people score better on just about every measure of psychological well  being.

When I asked Frederic Luskin Ph.D, Director of the Stanford University  Forgiveness Projects and a pioneer in the practice of forgiveness therapy, whether he thought the title of the book misleading, his response was: “I would call misleading an understatement.” Explaining that while  there is “modest evidence forgiveness can affect heart disease and some  evidence that short term it makes a difference in all sorts of physiological  indicators”, he concluded there is “no evidence that I can imagine that it overcomes cancer”.

Dr. Everett Worthington, Professor of Psychology at Virginia  Commonwealth University and a leading expert in the field of  forgiveness, conceded that while there had been plenty of research  related to coping with cancer and quality of life, “forgiveness has not  been related to cancer cure or remission per se.” And Dr Kathleen  Lawler-Row, Professor of Psychology at East Carolina University who  has studied how forgiveness is linked to physical health and successful aging, agreed that,

“To my knowledge there have been no studies that document causal  relations between forgiveness and any health outcome, much less  overcoming cancer. In fact, those words make little sense in that when  does one ever know if cancer is ‘overcome’?”

So, although I would largely agree with Dr. Barry when he writes  “unforgiveness, including the suppression of negative emotions, is very  stressful,” anything linking forgiveness and cancer rings loud alarm bells  for me. Dr. Barry falls short in his book of actually stating that forgiveness  is a cure for cancer but the suggestion is there all the same – particularly  in the book’s sub-title, “The Startling Discovery of How to Overcome  Cancer, Find Health, and Achieve Peace”.

Dr. Barry explains that he is not saying forgiveness is the Christian thing  to do or the Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim thing to do but that “it’s the right  thing to do, if what you want is the best chance of beating your disease.”

Reading this I’m left with the question, what of those who can’t forgive …  are they doomed to succumb to cancer? And what if the cancer returns  for any of Dr. Barry’s five case studies (like Sharon’s story of  ‘spontaneous remission’) – would this mean they had not properly or  sufficiently forgiven?

6 Comments on "BLOG: Can Forgiveness “Overcome” Cancer?"

  1. Lee says:

    I do not think he intended “overcome cancer” to mean “become cured.” I think he intended it to mean becoming psychologically and spiritually stronger so that cancer does not rule your life. In that sense, he is probably correct that forgiveness can help a person achieve such a mental state while living with cancer.

  2. christine says:

    I read Dr. Barry’s book and what is not mentioned in your article are the results of the 5 patients that are featured in his book. They have overcome their cancer and the process they used was that which was discussed in The Forgiveness Project book. I don’t see how actual living proof can be denied. I do also agree, however, that curing cancer per se is not what Dr. Barry was referring to. He does not actually ever claim that forgiveness cures cancer. He describes what negative emotions such as anger, bitterness and unforgiveness do to one’s body, thus hindering the ability for the body to heal itself and can aid in making the body susceptible to diseases including, perhaps, cancer. Therefore, logic would follow that if people practice forgiveness they would help themselves by strengthening their bodies to fight against these diseases.

  3. Thanks Christine for your comments. I don’t actually disagree with what you say in that I know that study after study show evidence of health benefits to having a forgiving attitude. My objection was mainly in the title – I think it does imply that forgiveness is a cure to cancer. Also I worry for the 5 case histories. What if one goes into remission – does that mean they have failed? I do feel the forgiveness world see forgiveness as a panacea for all ills and I suppose that’s why The Forgiveness Project occupies a pretty unique space. The minute you start telling people what’s best for them, I think resistance builds.

  4. Darian Burns says:

    Please actually read the book. From your comments and those you cite, it is clear you have not read anything other than liner notes which were probably written by a publicist for the publisher and not Dr. Barry. He has worked with Cancer Centers of America for over a decade. Yes, he is a Christian but he is also a scholar.

  5. Gretchen Saari says:

    In your message, I hear a real need to be right and a lot of intellectualism. Where is the spirit of forgiveness?

    • marina says:

      Thank you for your comment. You may indeed be right but my blog reflects the fact that I believe strongly that when people feel coerced into forgiveness it can become a tyranny. I worry when the movement towards love and forgiveness becomes a dogma – and so I am sure I too can fall into the trap of becoming equally dogmatic! I may have founded The Forgiveness Project -and certainly believe strongly in its transformative power – but it doesn’t mean that my blogs don’t sometimes betray my own sense of frustration of a field that is so often steeped in black and white thinking.

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