Editorial Reviews of The Journey Through Cancer

The Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Volume 7, Number 3,
June 2001

The Journey Through Cancer
Jeremy R. Geffen, MD
Crown Publishers, NY: 2000
288 pp, $24. ISBN 0-609-60450-3

In his book, The Journey Through Cancer , Jeremy Geffen, a board-certified oncologist gives us an uncompromising look at all the issues that face cancer patients, from diagnosis all the way through the delicate rebuilding of body, mind, and spirit that must ensue for true healing to take place. Geffen is a skilled and empathetic guide whose book will appeal to practitioners and patient alike. His gentle yet thorough approach makes this a book I would gladly and easily hand any friend or patient who must take this journey.

While standing firmly on the ground of proven scientific assessment and treatment of cancer, Geffen never closes his eyes to anything that might ultimately help the patient. He unflinchingly looks at most of the alterntive therapies that offer so much hope to those who have lost hope. Just as realistically, he reviews the strengths and shortcomings of conventional medicine. However, what is ground breaking in this book is the unabashed and central role Geffen gives to the role of mind and spirit in the healing process. Although he is not the first to address this issue, Geffen makes a particularly compelling case for a paradigm shift in the way we approach the "Big C."

Let me take you on a journey through this book. First, don't skip the Introduction, where Geffen tells the story of his father's death from cancer during his senior year in medical school. Here the seeds were planted that have borne fruit in his holistic approach to oncology. He also describes his spiritual heritage and his exposure to the healing traditions of the East.

In the first chapter, Geffen asks, "What is the purpose of medicine?" Modern, time-pressed medicine focuses mainly on "fixing the problem" while often ignoring the mental, emotional, and spiritual realities of patients. Geffen postulates that cancer patients turn away from modern methods not only because of the inherent difficulties in treating cancer, but because these inner needs are so seldom addressed thoroughly. He blames no one, but rather offers a way to empower patients to find these answers within themselves regardless of diagnosis, condition, or outcome.

Geffen divides the healing process into seven levels. In the first, he lays the information foundation on which future decisions must be made. He brings the reader up to date on the latest cancer research and its clinical implications. He frankly assesses treatments both conventional and alternative, addressing not only methods but fears, preconceptions, and erroneous perceptions. He offers insight into the challenging decision-making process facing cancer patients and proposes that we must know as much about our inner journey through cancer as our outer diagnosis.

Level Two addresses the need for psychosocial support. In addition to examining the studies that show the proven benefits of such support, Geffen explores the reasons that so many patients avoid this kind of help. He offers a series of questions as a self-test to identify the source of this resistance.

Level Three offers a compelling metaphor that invites us to view the body as a garden. Here the ideas of "battling" and "fixing" are replaced with notions of tending, cultivating, and fertilizing in order to produce the fruits of health, well-being, and self-knowledge. Most importantly, Geffen deals head-on with the myriad of complementary and alternative therapies that tantalize the patient and taunt the oncologist. He is sympathetic yet unequivocal in declaring that no alternative therapies have scientifically proven effectiveness as primary rather than complementary approaches, despite anecdotal claims to the contrary. He examines diet, nutrition, herbs, supplements, massage, exercise, acupuncture, chiropractic, and many other Western and Eastern healing traditions, inviting the patient to embrace those that will enhance well-being, but not at the expense of abandoning proven therapies.

Level Four confronts perhaps the most blatant shortcoming of modern medicine: the failure to address the emotional component of illness. This is crucial in dealing with cancer patients, yet Geffen reminds us that few patients coming to him have ever been asked about their feelings. Among the many stories of Geffen's patients in this book is that of Laura and Steve, a courageous couple who had been dealing with Laura's metastatic breast cancer for 4 years when Geffen first met them. After hearing the details of their struggle and performing his examination, Geffen asks them what they are really feeling deep in their hearts and what matters most to them in life. At this point both Laura and Steve start to cry. "Why are you crying?," Geffen asks. "Will you tell me?" They answer almost in unison. the same answer Geffen reports hearing again and again:

"Because no one ever asked us how we're feeling." Geffen boldly states that "not one single person has ever truly healed from cancer without undergoing a transformation and healing of their inner self." He then offers practical advice for both the doctor and the patient on how to begin this delicate process.

In Level Five Geffen explores the nature of mind, noting that "the experience of cancer is always and absolutely a subjective one." Cancer diagnoses can have profound effects on patients' thought processes, which in turn directly influence their ability to make good choices. Geffen shows us that our thoughts increase in power when they become beliefs, which he describes as "thoughts we have elevated to the level of truth." Once again he guides with stories and questions for self-examination, to help us uncover those hidden mindsets that shape our experience and choices in dealing with cancer.

Level Six goes straight to the core. In the face of death a patient needs to be asked, "Do you really want to live?" and "If so, why?" Dr. Geffen believes it is imperative to perform a "Life Assessment" that will connect with the deepest longings, intentions, and purposes of one's life. After unabashedly sharing his own sense of purpose, mission, and vision, Geffen demonstrates ways to help patients through this process, focusing on what they want to accomplish, how they would like to be remembered, and how to approach the time for letting go.

Level Seven asks us to contemplate on the ultimate nature of reality. For Geffen, the answer is simply and clearly that we are spiritual beings living in a spiritual universe. He shares his understanding of Eastern religious wisdom and invites patients and caregivers like to incorporate the spiritual dimension of "being" into our earthly dimension of "doing." He even deals with the notion of karma and suggests that cancer can be looked at as simply cause and effect, not crime and punishment. Ultimately, the journey through cancer can become a way to discover the true self.

Geffen successfully navigates us through the threatening and confusing waters that arise with the diagnosis of cancer. His experience, competence, and compassion shine through in this book. It will help any reader to think more clearly about how to deal with cancer, not only physically, but mentally, emotionally, and ultimately, spiritually.

John Waitekus

Address reprint requests to:
John Waitekus, M.D.
1405 East Bayshore Drive
Virginia Beach , VA 23451
E-mail: johnwaitekus@hotmail.com


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