A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Spiritual recovery from cancer: One survivor’s story

polaroid photo of Dan crump with a light blue ribbonDan Crump had a clear idea of where his life was heading after finishing his second year of seminary school in Chicago.

But that’s also when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer so the future was a little less clear.

From a physical perspective, he is fine after having his prostate gland surgically removed and learning that his cancer is in remission.

But less clear to him now is his spiritual recovery from cancer. That may seem strange, given his background, but it’s not uncommon among cancer survivors, said Mindy Gribble R.N., coordinator of the WINGS program for cancer survivors.

Body and spirit recover at different speeds

Gribble said from the moment a medical diagnosis like cancer impacts you or a loved one, life changes. A wide range of emotions is normal when trying to get your feet on the ground amidst an unexpected, vulnerable situation. In addition, it’s important to remember many people have taken this spiritual journey. As one cancer survivor said, “Cancer is a ‘rock your soul’ experience. My body is recovering but it’s taking my spirit a while to catch up.”

Even as dedicated a person as Mother Teresa struggled with her spirituality at times. “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle,” she was widely quoted. “I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”

“People sometimes ask ‘what was it that caused the cancer,’” Crump said. “What’s the lesson you’re supposed to learn from this? My tension comes from my sense of ‘what the heck is this’ vs. people telling me how I’m supposed to feel or respond. And worst of all, telling me it’s a good thing I had my prostate removed.”

Feeling mixed emotions is common

Crump senses what some call “survivor guilt,” the emotional struggle of trying to balance knowing that your own cancer was treatable but for many others their cancer was not. Gribble often hears from survivors of various cancers who feel grateful and unfortunate at the same time. “They have the same feelings of vulnerability as other survivors,” she said. “Because of that, they have a lot more in common than they think.”

Crump said he’s also experiencing tension from being uprooted because of his cancer diagnosis and treatment, while others around him are not. As a result, he now finds himself occasionally avoiding being around others, even in structured gatherings.

“It’s really difficult to go to church now, for instance, or even a workshop meeting or a meditation group. That’s a big change from before my cancer, when it meant a lot to me to be in the company of people,” he said.

Time helps with healing

Crump is giving himself the gift of time and patience as he moves forward. He’s finding himself living more in the moment. “My focus is on what is happening in the current moment, the ground beneath my feet,” he said.

Gribble reiterated that a major illness like cancer may leave a person feeling vulnerable and forever changed.

“Be gentle with yourself and take time,” she said. “Give yourself permission to express your feelings and remember you are not alone as much as it might seem.”

Survivor’s guilt often is an unanticipated side effect of cancer. These strategies may help ease survivors guilt.

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