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Straight Talk

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When we go to our doctor with a health complaint, within 10 or 20 minutes of contact, they’re expected
to evaluate us, reach a speedy conclusion about what is troubling us, and send us away for tests or
treatment. Our present health-care system pushes us through scheduling, examinations, tests, and
prescriptions in such a rush that there is no time for the doctor to really learn what makes our body
run, until it crashes and screams, “Fix me!”

Despite the well-known association between emotional trauma and disease, our culture continues to
cover up, smooth over, and suppress these experiences. Little attention is paid to honoring the
hurt—but the body does not forget. “Our issues are in our tissues,” as the saying goes. We have spent
years covering up what is so deep inside us that we believe we are our cover, our “ego.” Our
health-care environment is not equipped to deal with the kind of deep inquiry necessary for real
healing. Emotional suffering is labeled “behavioral” or “psychological,” and we are branded as
someone who cannot handle the stress of living in our roller-coaster culture. Where support
treatments are available, they have limited insurance coverage, if any. It’s easier to prescribe
antidepressants to patients than to help them deal with the past through forgiveness and compassion,
allowing painful memories to be released from their tissues.

A year ago I needed to find a new physician, and I chose someone who had a reputation for listening.
She was so popular it took three months to get an appointment. The first visit was spent reviewing my
past medical history with a brief exam before my time was up. At the follow-up visit two months
later, we still dealt with surface issues, dancing to get to know each other. Maybe it was made more
difficult because I was a broken-down, burned-out surgeon, a mirror of what could happen to her.
It wasn’t until the third visit that I started to feel that enough time was being spent on who I am
and that she was starting to pay attention to my underlying emotional burdens. How difficult it is
to see a colleague crushed by the load and, therefore, not want to see what is beneath his

One of my mentors once advised me, “Don’t open the can of worms unless you know how to, or want to,
handle the worms.” Now that I am no longer operating but still seeing my old patients for follow-up
appointments, I have the time to sit and talk, to “open up their can of worms” and pay attention to
their inside world—a world I had no time for previously in the rush of surgery, radiation, and
chemotherapy, but also, a world most patients did not want to see or reveal while dealing with a
life-and-death experience.

During the heat of battle against their cancer, our visits were spent
checking their basic survival functions, not necessarily exploring the deeply-rooted emotional and
spiritual issues that got them there in the first place. I now wonder how many other physicians
struggle with the same challenge of being overwhelmed and unable to take care of all those needs our
patients have but which we don’t have the facilities or time to provide. Such is the cost of our
current health-care system: By denying the importance of patients’ spiritual and emotional issues,
health care ends up costing society more.

Previously I doubted whether patients would want me inquiring into their emotional histories at such a
desperate time in their lives. Now that I have the time and the interest to open their “can of worms,
” I am amazed by the receptiveness and the openness of many patients. Now that I’m able to offer
support groups, meditation, and yoga, many patients want to take these steps and embrace them as part
of their new healing journey.

One of my patients, who works as a manager for a large national fast-food chain, is justifiably proud
of her position and the income she earns for her family. Unfortunately her medical condition—morbid
obesity and other related problems—is not helped by her proximity to the very item that is causing
her pain. She is trapped. As manager she cannot leave the premises during her long day to get fresh
air, exercise, or eat healthier food; she cannot bring her own food on the premises because of the
company’s policy. She is trapped by the need to support her family and the restrictions of her
employer. Eventually her body will stop completely. The constant barrage of cancer-causing,
DNA-breaking insults will ultimately win. Her family will find another way to survive. The employer
will find another manager.

Another patient was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35. Her mother had developed breast
cancer at age 60, but there was no other family history of cancer. Although married for several years
with two children, she had given up a child for adoption when she was very young and had two
abortions during her marriage because of the bad timing of the pregnancies. She had struggled with
the memories of the adopted child for many years until eventually she arranged a meeting with the
child, a boy. He completely rejected her and spurned her desire for contact. Afterward she suffered
from severe depression; then one year later she developed breast cancer. There are many explanations
for this occurrence, and none of them should be interpreted as blame. However, I sense that her
immune system was faced with the constant hits of emotional loss, separation, blame, and regret,
ultimately impacting the very site of a mother’s being, her breasts.

These women’s stories demonstrate how no single cause but rather the multiple daily assaults by our
emotions on the immune system can ultimately exhaust even the strongest. Like many other patients,
they described how they have lived separated from their bodies. They see the cancer as another “part”
of them, unattached to their core being. Their minds and the cancer are two separate entities,
coexisting in the same body. But until they can find a way to integrate the two, healing will be a
struggle as the mind and the cancer wage an antagonizing battle.

So how can they and we begin to live in our bodies in a way that honors both our emotional, spiritual,
and physical being? As patients we must learn to be honest with ourselves about the past and find
ways to forgive with love and compassion. On the yoga mat, sinking into the floor, breathing deeply,
stretching each fiber, and listening create the meditative environment of compassion and
forgiveness necessary for healing to begin. We can also be more honest with those around us and
those trying to help us—our health-care team.

Can we let our physicians and our partners in life see
that the one sitting here in pain is actually acting out physically what has not been given a stage
until now? As physicians we must listen more and learn the skills and tools necessary to open the
can of worms without our own fears getting in the way. As a society we must acknowledge that
emotional suffering is a sign our past is seeking resolution—not a sign of weakness but of
strength and honesty, not something to be kept hidden or camouflaged by our ego self, suppressed
with antidepressants, or surgically removed. As a culture we can do all of this by listening to
our collective wounds. Honesty creates an opening that can lead to freedom of expression in every
cell of our body.

Michael H. Taylor, M.D., F.A.C.O.G., spent 21 years as a traditional gynecologic oncologist and is
now medical director of the Integrative Healing Center in Carmichael, California.