Processing Cancer by Paul Brenner, M.D.

Cancer is often an unexpected and shocking life experience. When confronting a diagnosis, having the tools of self-analysis at hand can make a difference in a person’s facing the disease as a hopeless situation versus a part of her or his life journey.

Maria Bowen, Carl Roger’s leading psychotherapist in Person-Centered Therapy, taught me a simple method for analyzing unusual events in life. In 1994, I was diagnosed with cancer and have called on this technique at the time of my diagnosis and through repeated exacerbations of this illness. As a psychosocial oncologist, I have also used this process with my patients and their caregivers. I hope it empowers you to make clear decisions for yourself.

After each step, I have provided a sample answer, drawing on my first experience with cancer as an example. The technique could be used with any unusual experience, however, and is not just helpful for cancer.

Feel free to print out this article so that you may handwrite in your own answers in the lines provided.

1) Give your unusual experience a title.
In my case: Nightmare!




2) Write down your emotions sequentially from the moment of diagnosis up until the present moment.
In my case: Fear, stunned, confusion, hope, panic, surrender, and finally acceptance.

Sequence of emotions:



3) Write down the experience of your journey through cancer in a similar manner to that of a Chinese proverb found in a fortune cookie. For example, “Confucius says, he or she who…” Please do this process as quickly as possible. That way, the unconscious is revealed.
In my case: He who has cancer needs the help of others.

Fortune cookie proverb:



4) Step 3 is in the third person. Now personalize the proverb by restating the proverb with “I” instead of “He” or “She” and rephrasing it in your own style of speaking.
In my case: If I want the very best outcome, I need to get the best care I can find; forget I’m a doctor and get my ego out of the way.

Personalize the proverb:



5) Give yourself an affirmation based on your understanding of step 4.
In my case: I will ask for help in finding the best therapy available, and I will not, in any way, be my own doctor.




6) Write an affirmation based on your answer to step 5 on paper or a stone, and carry the wisdom with you for at least a week.
In my case, I wrote on one side of a stone: “Find best Doc.” and on the other side, ” E…Go!”.

Final affirmation:



Over the years, I have found this six-step process empowers individuals to co-create with their physicians in their healing process. It also reveals their participation in their own healing.

At their worst, uncommon experiences can prove unpleasant and even traumatic. Yet, when approached with the right mindset, uncommon experiences like cancer can also serve as guideposts for personal growth, understanding, and the acceptance of this gift of life that we all have been given.


Paul Brenner M.D., PhD. was a gynecological oncologist who practiced obstetrics and gynecology, and also holds a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology. His journey through the healing arts has been in search of those unseen processes that play into chronic illness. He presently is the Psychosocial Oncologist at the UCSD Health Systems San Diego Cancer Center. Also, he is a Research Fellow at The San Diego Cancer Research Institute. He is involved in studying the impact of Trans-Generational Emotional Patterns on Health and Illness. He is the author of Seeing your Life Through New Eyes and Buddha in the Waiting Room. He also has lectured throughout the world.

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