"Our soul must perform two duties. The one is that we must reverently wonder and be surprised. The other is that we must gently let go and let be." Julian of Norwich

...Cancer teaches both!!!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Illness vs Sickness

Ken Wilber, in reflecting on his wife’s experience of cancer in Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber makes the distinction between the physical dimensions of cancer, the “illness”, and the social dimensions, the “sickness”. In Ken’s word’s…

"In any disease, a person is confronted with two very different entities. One, a person is faced with the actual disease process itself... Call this aspect of disease "illness". Cancer, for example, is an illness, a specific disease with medical and scientific dimensions…

But two, the person is also faced with how his or her society or culture deals with that illness – with all the judgements, fears, hopes, myths, stories, values, and meanings that a particular society hangs on each illness. Call this aspect of disease "sickness". Cancer is not only an illness, a scientific and medical phenomenon; it is also a sickness, a phenomenon loaded with cultural and social meanings…"   Ken Wilber


As a person living with cancer I can relate to what Ken is talking about. To be diagnosed with CANCER is to be subject to all kinds of assumptions, presumptions, perceptions, prognoses, and judgements based on what folks believe about cancer. I don’t think this happens in a malicious or even a conscious way, it just kind of happens as people and groups of people begin to make judgements about you based on their particular beliefs about cancer and the world.

When a culture, or community, views an illness in a negative light, "stigma" results. The very identity of a person is transformed in a negative way based on society’s judgements and assumptions. This is most particularly true today of HIV/AIDS, addictions, and mental health illnesses.

The stigmatizing of cancer persists in our society as well. Many cancer survivors will speak of friends and colleagues avoiding them, of prospective employers shying away, or of people discounting their potential and devaluing their gifts because they have, or had, cancer. To be stigmatized is to be aware of a social process that has somehow judged us negatively, identified us as "sick" and "separated" us from the rest of the group.

I’m personally lucky in that, for the most part, I’m connected with people and communities that view cancer in a positive and supportive light. But there are many “worldviews” in our society which contribute to the stigmatizing of people with various illnesses, including cancer. Worldviews which see illness as punishment, or the consequence of “sin”, or because of “wrong thinking” do much to devalue the identity of those with the illness. Likewise there are many worldviews which contribute to a positive understanding of illness. Most of us are influenced by a number of these different ways of thinking. But that’s another post entirely… perhaps tomorrow.

TTFN… Rob; in Vancouver

“I thought during the first part of Treya's life her strength came from her being able to fight. Now, I thought, it started to come from her being able to surrender."  Ken Wilber

originally posted in July 2007

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very true, Rob, very true. Thanks for sharing what Ken wrote about illness vs sickness.