“The words we speak of are powerful. They have their own power. When we treat them—use them dishonestly or without care—they can do serious harm to ourselves and others.” Ratu Noa in The Straight Path
Words have power and few words evoke more fear in people than “cancer.” As a word, it is used to describe every type of cancer there is, no matter how slow, aggressive, or life threatening it may be. Its power lies in our response to the word itself. Many will constrict in fear. Some will want to go to battle for their lives and refuse to give in while others may collapse and accept their fate. A body at war with itself brings a medical response of war. Allopathic medical practitioners respond by speaking of the “war” on cancer and stating that “we’re going to treat this aggressively.” Armed with weapons of surgical precision, chemotherapy, and radiation, Western medicine fights the fires of a cancer eating away at the body with its own versions of fire.
Shamans have long known what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. Many say the malignant behaviors of humans towards the Earth brings malignancy to us as humans. Sandra Steingraber shares numerous examples of communities where the chemical pollution and radioactivity of the air, water, and land has consistently led to higher rates of cancer and other environmental-related illnesses. My goal here is to share a shamanism-based model that works to restore balance and harmony; brings peace and healing as a response to illness (versus war), and offers empowerment to cancer patients. I draw upon more than thirty years of healing work with cancer patients including, but not limited to, Vietnam vets with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Agent Orange exposure), Chernobyl survivors and others exposed to radiation such as Gulf War veterans (depleted uranium), farmers exposed to pesticides, and persons living in environmentally (chemically) contaminated land and/or rivers.
Cancer:War or Peace
Thirty-two years ago, I spent a year with my father as he went through his cancer and dying process. What started out as colon cancer progressed later into bone and brain cancer. Contemporary Western medicine notes that as cancer cells conquer an area of the body they send out scout cells whose function it is to find territories in the body in which to establish new colonies. Elementally, cancer is like fire: fragile in nature, it needs to be fed and will do all that it can to keep itself sustained. This is how I now think of the spreading disease I watched in my father’s body. What struck me most in those days became the clues for my later understanding in working with cancer patients.
My father remained a strong warrior until the doctors said they could do no more. I watched the power of those words speed his ending. His last weeks were spent living in World War II, a defining traumatic moment in his life, and in screaming pain. He recognized me, but no one else. Each day I entered into his mind spiritually and watched the war that lived in his soul. It was the only way he knew how to process the losing battle in his soul. Spiritually, I learned the songs that were in his bones where the pain was greatest and I spent hours singing to create resonance with the pain. The singing seemed to stop the screaming and somehow make the pain less. Those two things, and prayer, were all that I knew then to do.
Healing a sick person requires a basic understanding of what it is like to walk in the shoes of that person. More than the illness itself, it is the person who has a particular illness that is critical to the approach of the work. Each specific cancer is spiritually distinct, even though it and others are of a particular type. As beings, we exist in two realms: the physical and the spiritual. The two are vibrating back and forth, making a song. Learning that relationship between body and soul through this resonance teaches much about disease. In many ways, disease is like a song sung off-key. In its essence, all shamanic healing is about restoring relationship: within oneself, with one’s family, with one’s community, and with the spirits.
The factors contributing to the development of cancer are multifarious. Genetics, general system health, social milieu, exposure and sensitivity to environmental pollutants, viruses, nutritional habits, and profession have all been cited as contributors. However, even with this understanding of factors, it still comes down to the specifics of the particular person in whom this disease occurs. For example, having worked with dozens of people exposed to radiation at Chernobyl as children who as adults developed thyroid cancer, I have learned that they represent only about 25% of those exposed to the radiation. Therefore, I stress an approach that asks, “who is the person with this illness?” This approach helps to understand that “one size does not fit all.” While soul retrieval, extraction, power animal retrieval and other healing techniques of traditional shamanism are used, the uniqueness of the person influences the specifics of the path taken.
Typically, the approach I use focuses on empowerment for the cancer patient. Rather than them being a person who has things done to them, we work to create an alliance together, and with the spirits, that allows them to work on their own behalf. I often tell them the following Jewish folk tale about healing.
A doctor goes to a patient who has been sick for a long time. “Let me explain something to you,” he tells the discouraged man, “in this room, there are three of us—you, me, and your disease. If you and I join forces, then we’ll outnumber the disease two-to-one, and we have a good chance of winning. But, if you join forces with the disease, there is not much I can do.”
A response I often hear when I tell patients this story is: “So you are telling me that the more I think about this disease, test for it, and wonder about it, the more I’m aligning myself with it.”
Right at the beginning I want them to journey on their own behalf. I teach them how to connect with their power animals and spiritual teachers. Typical questions (and the reasoning behind them) I have them journey on include:
a. What is the spirit of the illness telling you; what is its message? This moves the patient from conflict to a relationship with the illness so they can influence, with the help of the spirits, a healing direction with the spirit of the illness .
b. What is it that I see, hear, feel that I do not allow to get to my heart? This question is based on the notion that the heart is the seat of the immune system.
c. Sometimes there is a quality to a person, where I will say: “The ancestors are trying to get your attention via this disease.” I have him or her ask: “What is the healing the ancestors are asking of me?” This helps create a discussion of how the disease is more than just about one’s self. It may reflect larger healing needs for the ancestors and the community at large.
d. Some cancers create cocoon-like barriers around themselves so medicine will not get in. To address this, I have them ask: “How can I get around the cocoon to remove the illness?” Similar to this is having them journey to the spirit of the chemotherapy medicine. It empowers them to bring a spiritual influence to their own healing.
e. Journey to the Spirit of Death and ask this spirit: “Teach me how to use you as a healer.” This journey helps certain patients with their fear of death as well as develops a spiritual sense that death gives life as well as taking life. This is also drawn from the work of Jonas Salk who used inactivated or “killed” viruses for his immunology. His work revealed the persistence of a reactive energy beyond the death of matter.
f. In certain cases where there is something in the patient’s personal story such as their own trauma history, for example, I will have them do a journey to heal the memory in their cells that perhaps no longer serves them. As spiritual beings we are adaptive and we change as our needs in the world change. In the story of malaria in Africa, human blood cells changed as an adaptation to protect against this disease. However, this change also is the basis for sickle cell anemia, which is particularly troublesome in areas with no malaria where people with this change immigrated. Operational attack memories get infused in the cellular memory which is part of how some cells become cancer (attack) cells.
g. Spiritual sickness and health exists outside the construct of time. I often do a ceremonial journey with patients where I wrap them up in a white sheet and ask them to journey with the help of the spirits to a time before the conditions for cancer were in their bodies and to learn as much about that state of balance and harmony as they can. I have often found that this restores the body towards its own healing possibility.
h. Journey to the spirits to learn about how the illness represents “stuckness” in their lives, and then how to get unstuck. This journey is relevant for people whose presentation reflects passivity and hopelessness about life. Much of the psychoneuroimmunoligical literature speaks about how patients who are able to express anger often have better outcomes with certain cancers than people who are more passive.
i. Since all healing in shamanism is in some way about healing relationships, I reframe for the patient the issue of “ what caused me to get sick” into “ what are the spiritual relationships involved in my sickness that need balance and harmony?” Part of the reasoning here is that they can work on restoring appropriate relationships in their lives; they cannot always know the “why.”
The healing work itself varies case by case. Working in alliance with the spirits, one sees soul retrieval, extraction, power animal retrievals, and depossession as central to the work. Since cancer is by its nature of the “fire” element, the work entails removing intrusions caused by negativity, but also encourages other approaches to cool the “fire” element aspect of the disease. Some of it may come to peace vis a vis the journeys the patient is doing on their own behalf. Sometimes the spirits will guide me to have them do a fire ceremony to release anger that they hold onto that feeds the disease. Sometimes the person is directed to go to water spirits, to pray for forgiveness and to learn the sacrifices he or she must make to bring a larger possibility into his or her life. Sometimes the journey I do for a patient will show that the illness is “spirit sickness” (like the initiatory illness of a shaman) and the illness is a calling to that person to live their spiritual gifts in the world. Most often in these cases, I am directed to have the patient work with the “water spirits.”
In working with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, the best results are often within the context of a large circle with several healers involved. A model for this that the spirits gave me in my own journeys that I have used many times with success involves healers taking different roles in the healing ceremony. There are two different versions that I most often use. One involves a healer who journeys to fill up with power by merging with his or her power animal and then goes in this merged condition to meet the spirit of the patient’s cancer. The healer learns this spirit’s dance and then dances the spirit of the person’s cancer . Another healer journeys to merge with his or her power animal and asks to learn the dance of healing, which he or she then dances. The circle of drummers keeps all of their attention on the person who is dancing the healing, ignoring the first healer who is dancing the spirit of the cancer. As the cancer spirit loses power, more people are brought into the circle to learn the dance of healing and help build its power. The patient watches, and if able, eventually joins the dance.
The other ceremony involves healers taking on four different roles. One journeys to do a creative intervention. He or she goes to his or her helping spirits to get a healing story or poem, an image of art to draw or sculpt, or some other form of creativity that brings healing to the patient. A second operates in the traditional shamanic healer role and does whatever healing the spirits direct. A third journeys and asks the spirits how to bring in disruptive power that can break through the spiritual blocks contributing to the disease or is preventing spiritual healing power from getting through. They might yell, scream, drum loudly, sing loudly, or dance fiercely to accomplish this. The last healer works with the spirits to send unconditional love to the patient, as love is the strongest healing force.
Except for name changes for the sake of patient privacy, the cases offered here accurately depict the work patients and I did together and the outcomes that were achieved. The cases were chosen based on their being representative samples of clusters of similar cases.
Case 1: The patient was a mid-fifties male with an initial diagnosis of prostate cancer. He had undergone surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, but the cancer had taken an aggressive course. Typical of most cancer patients that I see, he was pursuing our work together as a last resort, i.e., the cancer had spread throughout his body and he was told by his oncologist that there was nothing else they could offer. They essentially said his time was short at best. Professionally a teacher, he did not want to leave his work, his wife, or his children. He felt there were things he needed yet to achieve in life and he was willing to do whatever I suggested.
The initial healing work involved soul retrieval and extraction work. Most striking in my journey for him was the burning fire in his belly that had a steel door locked around it. My power animal said that this fire was his own anger trapped within and it was eating him up. Energetically, he was much brighter after the healing work, which lifted his wife’s mood as well. We immediately had him journeying to his own spirit helpers to assist him.
In his first journey, he was met by Snake and Bear. Snake ate through his whole body and during the whole journey, I watched his body go into non-stop spasms. Snake then took him to a piece of land that he held dear to his heart. Snake began teaching him about how He had taught the people long ago to live in harmony with this land. He showed him the contours He had made so the water would irrigate the land and the way He had taught the people the best places to plant. Bear came and merged into his body. My client felt a surge of strength that had been missing throughout his whole illness process. Bear began to tell him a story and told him to begin writing it down because they had books to write and time was of the essence. Both Bear and Snake told him he needed to purify his body and work to heal the fires burning in his belly. Per his journey instructions, we arranged for a sweat lodge ceremony on his behalf as well as a community fire ritual.
In this case, we did much journeying and healing work together. At no time did his medical markers such as his PSAs or scans done of his body show any improvement. In fact, the medical people kept saying the cancers had spread and grown larger. For seven years, he lived pain free for the most part, continued to teach full time, wrote two books guided by the spirits, and looked by all accounts to be full of life and not sick whatsoever. The oncologist involved told me that he could not believe or understand how he had become so robust, for everything spoke to the opposite. He died one day after what he thought of as the more important book was published and delivered to his home. This case is indicative of dozens of cases where the strong spiritual connection developed by a patients enhanced the quality of their lives and brought them a sense of control, zest for living, fullness, and grace they had not known previously.
Case 2: Natalia is a young (early 20s) Belorussian woman I met at a psychology conference in Russia where I was presenting on shamanism, peace, and healing. She struck me as expressionless facially, though most would see her as pretty. Her thyroid was extremely enlarged and looked like a grapefruit growing out of her neck.
She had attended a demonstration I had done at the conference and asked me if I would do healing work on her behalf. We had to work through an interpreter. Natalia told me that as a child she had lived very close to Chernobyl and that many in her family were sick. She said she knew that her thyroid cancer was because she was exposed to radiation as a child. The interpreter, it turned out, was a widow whose deceased husband had rushed off to Chernobyl because his family was living there at the time of the meltdown in 1986 and had died as a result of his exposure.
What struck me most about Natalia (and many of the other Chernobyl survivors I have worked with over the years) was the profound “flatness” to her expressions and her lack of “life force.” Some of this was due to her fear that she could not have a normal life, a common fear being the likelihood of deformed babies if she were to marry and conceive.
In the journey I took for her, I was taken to fields around Chernobyl and shown flowers that had once grown there. I could hear them singing within the journey. My power animal told me I must sing this healing song to her neck while also singing the song of the cancer at the same time. It was a little bit like Tuvan throat singing as I sang back and forth on the inhale and exhale. Then, I was told to put a red cloth around her neck with tobacco to help extract the poisons that were in her. This was followed by my being told to sing again to the cancer in her throat. When we were done with the healing work, the grapefruit sized tumor was gone. The interpreter, who is a deeply religious Russian Orthodox Christian, was quite shocked by the work and reported to me that the aches and pains in her back and joints (which she attributed to Chernobyl) also had all gone away.
Natalia was happy that the tumor was gone. Later medical testing, since she was scheduled to have her thyroid tumor removed, showed remission of the cancer. At the same time, her “flatness” remained intact despite the spiritual miracle that had occurred.
Before the conference ended, I did one more healing session with her that involved bringing her a power animal as well as some soul retrieval work. A year later she returned to the same conference to say hello to me. She remained cancer free , had married unexpectedly and was much happier. But, her general view of the future including having children remained pessimistic.
Case 3: A middle aged woman I will call Donna came to a shamanism workshop in the Midwest to check me out. She approached me during a break and told me she had tumors throughout her body and was going to have surgery that week. Her prognosis was not good and she had only agreed to the surgery because the doctors said it would remove some difficult tumors and extend her quality of life. She asked if were going to do any healing work in the workshop and I said we would. We did the earlier-described healing ceremony where different people embrace different roles; a healing story, unconditional love, the provocateur to break through the spiritual blocks, and a shamanic practitioner. The person journeying for a story was given one to tell her that went something like this:
Once you were a river and you flowed everywhere. All life was supported by you and much was lush and green. But, one day things changed and you became a road, but in your soul you were a river. As a road you became very hungry and you wanted to eat, and eat and eat. But, the river that brought lushness was no more and the food disappeared.
One day an ant came and began to eat the road and each bite released water; the road was very juicy. Other ants came as they heard of the juiciness and the road slowly, but surely, became a droplet of water, then a puddle, then a creek, and then a river.
The provocateur was jumping and yelling all around her: ”Let Me In! Let Me In!” The one bringing in unconditional love, loved, and the shamanic practitioner did extraction and soul retrieval. When it was all over, she approached me and said: “Nothing happened; I felt nothing.” I replied that the spirits work in whatever way they do and that I had long ago learned to work from a place of non-attachment to outcome.
A year later she came to another workshop and shared that when she went to see her doctor for the pre-surgery physical, they had found her to be in full remission. What I have seen many times over in cases like this has been the revelation that the ones who report feeling nothing noticeable have been the ones with the strongest results.
Case 4: Bill was a Viet Nam vet diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He had been exposed to Agent Orange during the war and, like many veterans, developed problems later on. A postal carrier professionally, he had been proud of his level of fitness. He had led a life characterized by distancing himself from his daughter, from his romantic partners, and friends. He admitted that since the war, it had been hard for him to be close to people or tolerate being confined in any way. His feeling was that the postal carrier job was perfect for him. It allowed him to be in his own rhythms and outdoors. He reported right away in our work together that he had no desire to live.
My initial healing journey was very much like going into a war zone. Fire was burning everywhere in his body as I began to diagnose with the spirits what was needed. I watched water being poured from every direction on the fires, but it had no impact. Shouting voices were everywhere in a language I did not know. The message I received from the spirits was to not do healing work as he wanted to die in peace. I was to help him find that peace.
As I reported this to him, I watched his breath deepen and his eyes sparkle a bit. He told me that he was, in truth, more concerned about finding peace in his life than whether he lived or died. Our work focused on his journeying for spiritual direction on how to end the war within himself and reconcile his relationship with his daughter, who was his only child. His journeys guided him to write a letter from his heart asking for her forgiveness and to ask if she would meet with him in counseling to try to bring reconciliation into their lives. A journey we both did around forgiveness ritual helped design a process for them to speak truthfully from their hearts in a sacred circle, for Bill to give her things of importance to him and her from his life, and for him to create a gift for her that represented the gift he found for her while going so far away from her and others over the years. It was a powerfully emotional sharing of the hearts, and Bill, who typically was stoic, shifted to become more emotional and appreciative in his interactions with family and friends. The rest of our work was journeying on how he wanted his life to end, the type of funeral, etc. He died surrounded by his daughter and friends.
In tribal societies, spiritual lessons come in the form of stories. Stories remind us of what we have forgotten during this time. An elderly World War II veteran, prior to the recent invasion in Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, said to my wife,
No war is worth fighting; they should always try to resolve these things through negotiations. You know I was laying in a hospital during the war and I was in great pain from the gunshot wound that got me there. In the beds around me were German soldiers. You know, they were screaming in as much pain as I was.
This man, who at the time was dying from cancer and at peace with his life ending, served as a reminder that healing restores our sense of commonality and unity.
Anecdotally, I have witnessed many stories of miracles through the healing interventions of the spirits. In some cases, it is spontaneous remission and in others it is an extended quality of life. Bringing healing and peace in work with cancer patients involves more than traditional shamanic healing and contemplation. The healing advances through actions taken to set things right, deeds that flow from the revelation and guidance of the spirits. It calls for healing reflection, for that reflection allows us to have a more liveable grasp of our troubling experiences. What makes for healing ultimately is not how much we do (or fight), it is the dedication and heartfulness that we bring to the healing commitment.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Spirit is nothing to hold onto. We are always losing it and always having to regain it.” In working with cancer patients, there comes a point where what they lost in becoming sick, or what they had, is no longer adequate for the challenges they face. So, in that moment of vulnerability, of facing death head on, they and the shamanic practitioner are given a great task of how to find what is sacred in that moment and how to restore their relationship with the spirits that is healing not only for ourselves but for all around us. In the end, it is in the heart and the commitment to the task at hand that the shamanic practitioner best becomes the vessel of the spirits to bring healing.
1. Ratu Noa in The Straight Path
2. Sandra Steingraber
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
200? The Straight Path
200? Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.