Using RC to Recover from Cancer

­—Diane Shisk[1]

In my twenty-six years in Re-evaluation Counseling, I’ve helped counsel many people who’ve had cancer. As part of that, I’ve led support groups for those of us who were counseling the person with cancer. As leader of these groups, I’ve counseled people (including sometimes the person with cancer), talked about cancer and counseling, and discussed the issues people were facing in their counseling.

I’ve had several goals:

  • to develop a group of people who could apply the discharge process to healing from cancer,
  • to help the person with cancer access his or her own ability to heal, using the discharge process,
  • and to “reference” the person with cancer, including helping him or her to face, and think and discharge about, hard decisions.

Most recently, a group of us have been counseling Sam (not his real name). This time, in addition to a monthly support group, we’ve all stayed in touch via an e-mail discussion list in which we’ve shared useful information from sessions and support group meetings. Someone has transcribed, or taken notes on, the things I’ve said in the meetings and e-mailed them out to the support team. Using these, and some of the memos I’ve sent to people, I’ve put together this collection of insights about using Re-evaluation Counseling to help someone recover from cancer.


Few of us start out with enough slack to do a good job of counseling somebody who has cancer. Most of us have lots of undischarged feelings about cancer and haven’t yet faced the issues that would come up. If you’re my age (fifty-one), you grew up in an era in which cancer was a death sentence. That’s how we heard it, that’s how it’s stored in our minds, and that’s how it feels to us. However, it’s not true. People beat cancer all the time now, and survival rates keep improving. Also, what we know in RC about the human body, health, and healing gives us invaluable tools for helping someone who is fighting cancer.

I communicated the following to the support team:

“We need to have sessions to get ourselves in shape[2] to counsel Sam. We need sessions about cancer—about early memories of cancer, our own history of cancer, our family members and friends who’ve had cancer, cancer scares we’ve had, opinions about cancer treatment—whatever is related in our minds to cancer. We also need sessions about other serious illnesses, people with disabilities, and experiences with and feelings about the medical profession, medical procedures, hospitals, drugs, and so on—not to mention feelings about death and dying. Mostly we’re terrified about all this, and we need to discharge so that Sam has space to work on his terror. As we counsel him through cancer treatment, our personal histories and distresses could tangle up with his experiences. We should plan to do extra sessions on this material[3] during this time.

“This is all assuming that we’ve already got a great relationship with Sam and there’s nothing we need to clean up to be able to be completely close to him—to welcome him to climb into our arms and hold on to us for dear life[4] as he faces his heaviest distresses. As he goes into this battle, he needs strong relationships with people whom he can tell are in close with him. So part of our work is to discharge whatever would keep us from having a close, visibly caring connection with him, no matter what struggle he’s up against.

“We need all the information we can get about his cancer and about what the doctors are saying to him about his treatment. We want to be able to listen to him as he tells us about everything he’s experiencing—about his tumors, where they are, how big they are, how he feels physically, all the procedures, the attitudes of the medical staff. He’s going to undergo some invasive medical procedures. He’s going to be scared. He’s going to feel awful. This means that we’ll be around somebody who is terrified, nauseated, and exhausted, who has tubes in him and is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy.

“Most of us have lots of ideas and feelings about cancer treatment. We need to take these to our sessions, and keep them there. We mustn’t let ourselves, or anybody else, give Sam advice about what to do medically. He has gotten a second opinion and talked with the doctors. Both he and his partner are thinking well and have decided on the course of treatment. It might not be the treatment you would choose, but that’s not relevant here. These are his decisions.

“Though this is not the case with Sam, sometimes people who have cancer aren’t willing to consider a broad range of options for themselves. Their distresses lead them to reject some good treatments out of hand,[5] and basing their decisions on those distresses could be dangerous to them. I’ve known people who’ve only believed in a certain treatment while the research indicated that that particular approach had little chance of working and that other approaches had a good chance. In such cases, it probably makes sense to counsel the person to consider other options. However, we shouldn’t just barge in[6] with our ideas—we should check first with the best functioning counselors around us. There are some mistakes we don’t need to make.

“We will make lots of mistakes, and that’s okay. We need to give Sam permission to tell us right up front[7] when we’ve made a mistake. He needs to able to say, “Back off,”[8] because in his situation he shouldn’t have to use any of his attention to handle his counselors’ distresses. He should just tell us, “Back off. That’s not the right way to go.” He can end a session whenever he wants to. He needs to take the lead in his treatment and use of counseling. He needs to be in charge. If he appears to be getting lost in distress and making bad decisions, we should work on that in our own sessions. As the “reference person” for this project, I’m inviting the team to e-mail me with questions and concerns. If we need to propose a different course than the one he’s choosing, we must do it thoughtfully and in consultation with each other.


“In the RC Community we’ve had a lot of experience counseling people with cancer. Many people are living who had cancer and had a bad prognosis. Many people are living who thought they wouldn’t be. In RC we have valuable tools to assist the body’s healing processes. We know that people’s chances for recovery from cancer (and all physical ailments) are much better if they use these tools to fight for themselves rather than simply putting their well-being in the hands of the medical profession. We’ll keep counseling Sam, and keep coming together as a group to discharge, share information, and stay in shape so that we can use RC tools to maximize his healing.

“Our bodies have great immune systems that work in concert with our minds. Undischarged distresses can interfere with the functioning of our organs and our immune systems. When there’s dysfunction, we’re more susceptible to infection, disease, and cancer. Cancer is a kind of cell mutation that gets out of control. Cells mutate all the time, and normally a mechanism within the cells tells them to die if they mutate. Cancer keeps that mechanism from working so that those cells don’t die, they just keep mutating and growing. In Sam’s case, he’s made a decision to use radiation and chemotherapy to kill off the cancerous cells (which will also kill quite a few healthy ones—that can’t be avoided). He’s going to have a lot to heal from. He’s going to have to heal from the treatment as well as the cancer.

“We know that discharge can help the body’s healing processes to work. It can assist malfunctioning systems to function again. It can boost the immune system so it can fight the cancer. It’s a bit tricky[9]—the way we think about disease in Co-Counseling. We know that distress recordings play a role in disease, and because we’ve all been made to blame ourselves for having distress recordings, there’s a pull to blame ourselves, and other people, for being sick. We have to use all that we know in RC: that it’s never anyone’s fault that he or she has any distress recording, and that people have always done the best they could to stay fully human—that they have battled against their distresses every step of the way. We never want to blame someone for having a disease, and we want to be able to stand firmly against anyone blaming himself or herself. It’s not in any way Sam’s fault that he’s got cancer, or that it’s a struggle to free himself from it.

“At the same time we want to squarely face that distress recordings do play a role and that Sam needs to take them on[10] fully. We can assume that some of his chronic distress recordings have interfered with his body’s healthy functioning, with his immune system—just like distress recordings affect all of us in one way or another. A big part of counseling Sam will be going after all of his chronic distresses. Each of us needs to take a firm stand against the chronics—hold out that their messages are lies, that he doesn’t have to believe them, that they don’t get to win, and that he can be free of them. As counselors we want to bust all of his chronic distresses open, so that he can discharge fully on them.

“All the counseling we will need to do to get ourselves in shape to counsel Sam is counseling that he will need to do as well. He, too, will need to work on all the things connected in his mind to cancer, all the feelings he has about cancer, and anything else that would keep him from being able to face the cancer, and discharge on it, and maintain a hopeful perspective about himself even though he has cancer.

“An overall goal for him for this period of time is to be as human as he can be, on every front. That means refusing to live inside any of his distresses in the way he has in the past. It means not cutting off any contact with people but instead going for more contact. It means anytime he feels a distress pulling him in the wrong direction, refusing to go there. It means engaging in an all-out[11] frontal offense against distress recordings. Part of his living a human life is fighting anything that would dare to invade his body. It’s important that he take big stands against any feelings of being powerless or helpless against cancer, any material that has him feeling like a passive victim. We want to help him take on[12] and contradict any feeling that portrays cancer as the winner and him as the loser.

“I don’t think most of us understand fully yet what fighting for ourselves means. (Our societies try hard to squash the fight out of us so that most of us have to reclaim our ability to fight.) We may think it means a hard wrestle. That can be useful, but fighting for ourselves is something that happens in our minds, that makes us refuse to be passive and let something take us. Fighting for ourselves is refusing to let our minds be anywhere that we don’t want them to be. We don’t have to acquiesce to lives that aren’t the way we want them. Fighting for ourselves means standing firmly and saying, ‘No.’ It’s that simple. ‘No.’ It means drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘No. You may not have me. I do not agree to let this distress win, no matter what feelings come up.’ It’s deciding to annihilate our distresses, to not live with even a shadow of the distresses that once had a firm grip on us. The first step is to not agree.

“There are many ways to do this in a session. We can yell and scream and throw people across the room (‘No, you can’t have me!’), or it can just be a whisper. The important thing is our perspective, what happens in our minds. Our role as counselors is helping the client to take that completely firm stand, that unyielding posture. This is hard for us to do because we have all been so hurt and victimized and have felt so powerless at different points in our lives, but that’s what we’re trying to do. And that’s a big chunk of the work we need to do against this cancer—along with working on the chronic distresses that have kept Sam from living a completely human life.

“It would be good if Sam’s main Co-Counselors could put together a picture of him—a strategy for his re-emergence, for counseling him: ‘These are his main chronics, and these are the directions I think he needs to take against them. This is what has worked; this is what’s been tricky.’ One tricky thing about counseling people to fight for themselves against cancer is that it can set them up for[13] judging themselves and feeling that they’re falling short.[14] Then their chronics of feeling bad about themselves can beat them up and undermine the good work.

“Where Sam is now is as human as he could be, given his circumstances. He’s done well. And he is as healthy as he could be, given what’s happened to him. We need to help him to always take that posture. We need to refuse to let him be sucked into[15] blaming or criticizing himself, or being hard on himself in any way. (We get to become experts, too, on refusing to feel bad about ourselves—on not even letting our minds go there, knowing that we’ve always done the best we could.)

“All this will be difficult for Sam. The cancer is hard on him, and the treatment will be too. He’s going to feel like giving up,[16] like he can’t fight the fight that’s needed. All the early battles that each of us fought and lost have left us all with recordings of discouragement, of feeling like we want to give up. We get to stand against those, and help Sam to face them, discharge them, and go on fighting.

“Sam gets to discharge despair, hopelessness, and fears of dying, and we have to hold out an attitude of hope and confidence the whole time. No matter how bleak it looks to us, no matter how awful he looks, no matter what gets restimulated in us (like things we’ve seen in the past, and what happened to people who looked like Sam), he needs us confident and he needs us hopeful. That means that we have to discharge about people in our lives who died of cancer; we have to discharge hopelessness. The situation is actually hopeful—anything else is our distress. There is every reason to think Sam can win this battle.

“He, and we, will also need to discharge about other people’s hopelessness. Doctors see a lot of cancer. They feel bad. They feel hopeless. They feel bad about what they’re able to offer and what they’re not able to do. They might dramatize a lot of discouragement and despair, even while they’re trying to be helpful. They might be negative about Sam’s prognosis. However, they don’t know what we know about cancer—about the role of distress recordings and fighting against distress and cancer—and they don’t know Sam. RC tools greatly improve the odds of winning against cancer. There is every reason to be hopeful, even if a doctor is not.

“We’ll need to let Sam discharge all the despair, all the hopelessness, all the pulls to give up—let him drain them out. Then we’ll need to come back and make him stand up and fight again. And he might scream at us, ‘No, I can’t! I won’t! I don’t want to!’ and we’re going to listen to him, and let him discharge, and then say, ‘Now get up. Let’s do it again.’ Then we’ll go back to our own sessions and find our own early times when things looked too awful for us to stand up and fight against, and we’ll work on those, and then we’ll go back and go after it again with him.

“This stuff is scary for anyone, and he’ll need to discharge lots of terror. We can remember all the ways to work on heavy fears: hanging on, digging in with fingers, skin contact, making sounds of delight, scorning the fear. Outrage and indignation that this could happen are excellent attitudes to take into sessions. There may be sessions in which it will make sense for Sam to be totally furious about it and throw people across the room.

“There’s a nice interchange in the January 2004 Present Time (page 24) between Tim[17] and somebody who had cancer, including these three sentences from Tim: ‘Fight hard. Don’t believe the discouragement. You deserve to have a long life.’ Another article, by Chuck Esser, is ‘Thoughts About Using Counseling to Recover from Cancer,’ in Present Time No. 52 (page 31). I think it’s the best article in the RC literature about using RC to fight cancer. There’s also one by Harriet McKinney called ‘Counseling About Breast Cancer’ in Present Time No. 110 (page 83). Harriet went through radiation and was smart about having her Co-Counselors go with her to treatments. Another important article is ‘Death and Dying, Life and Living,’ by Joan Karp, on page 11 of the October 2004 Present Time.

“Because Sam has decided to take chemotherapy and radiation, he has needed to discharge his way to an attitude of welcoming them. Welcoming them can seem counter-intuitive because these treatments are toxic and have many side effects. However, they are his allies in battling the cancer. He has also needed to discharge his way to seeing the doctors, nurses, and medical profession as his allies—to welcoming them and treating them well. He shouldn’t have an adversarial relationship with them. He shouldn’t be fighting against the treatments or the people. Instead he needs to work with them as much as he can. (This applies to anesthesia as well. There’s an excellent article on anesthesia, ‘What I’ve Learned About General Anesthesia,’ by Karen Slaney, on page 18 of the January 2004 Present Time.)” [See also the article by Elizabeth Skidmore, “My Experiences with Surgery and Anesthesia,” on page 12 of this Present Time. —Ed.]

Toward the end of his treatment, Sam felt exhausted all the time and like he couldn’t make any effort in any direction. He felt that because he was so exhausted and discouraged, he was losing his fight against the cancer. It was useful to remind him that his body was working hard and that this was the reason he was tired—that his feelings of being tired and discouraged had nothing to do with his fight against the cancer, that they didn’t mean he was losing the battle, that they were from the past, not about the future. We reminded him that he wouldn’t be confused by the tiredness if it were due to a lot of physical labor, and that his body was working that hard. Over and over he needed to hear that the tiredness wasn’t a sign that he was losing.


At one point I wrote the following to members of Sam’s team:

“There are several roles for us as RCers. Sam will choose his counselors, and we’ll want to respect that. This isn’t the time for him to be training his counselors. However, RCers who aren’t his primary counselors can play other roles, such as scheduling his sessions, or being with him and keeping a counseling perspective when he sees the doctors. Some of us can spend attention-out time with him. We can help him keep his mind off his chronic material and help him develop strategies for keeping his attention out when he doesn’t have counselors around. Some of us can go to his sessions as added resource, when the counseling gets difficult.

“It’s not our role to fulfill all his needs during this time. He will need to organize his friends and co-workers to help him with cooking, and other things he is no longer physically able to do, researching the cancer and possible treatments, exercising, and so on. We’re his Co-Counselors, and Co-Counselors do certain things that other people cannot. We’re going to have plenty of work just making sure that he gets enough counseling. It’s not useful for him, or for us, for us to step in and play roles that are appropriate for his friends and family.

“We each need to have some sessions and figure out what we can do, and how much we can do. And we don’t have to do more than that. Sam will need one-way time for quite a while. At some point it will be useful for him to do two-way time, to be in charge that way again, but for now it’s just one-way time—several sessions every day for the next eight weeks at least. His wife should have sessions every day, too. She’s playing an important role.

“Sam needs to stay in charge of making all the decisions. He needs to be in charge every step of the way. There’s a lot of information to absorb, there are many decisions to make, and there may be some struggles with doctors. Sam may feel pulled to just turn it all over to somebody else and follow that person’s lead. However, it’s important for him to figure things out, make the decisions, and give the orders (nicely, of course). This is partly because it’s his life and his treatment but also because it’s important that he not give in to powerlessness or victimization anywhere along the route.


“We have to remember that the medical profession does not understand that feeling, showing, and discharging pain is a useful part of the healing process. We know that if pain isn’t discharged, it stores as a distress recording. It is possible to discharge pain at the time of and shortly after an injury or surgery by putting attention on it and allowing and encouraging discharge. We discharge pain most easily when we’re feeling it, so it’s good to avoid numbing ourselves. When we numb the pain instead of discharging, it is stored as a distress recording, along with the numbing component. (Remember how a distress recording includes all the elements present at the time of a hurt?) This makes it harder to discharge the pain, and the other hurtful parts of the event, later. Most of us adults are pretty good at numbing ourselves to pain (we weren’t allowed to discharge fully during the many times we were physically hurt). Because of this, we may need to put physical attention to—touch in some way—the spot where we hurt, so that we can feel the pain enough to keep our attention there and discharge. (If a person is less numb, the idea of someone touching the hurt is often enough to at least start discharge, though some physical touch, or even pressure, may be necessary to keep it going.) Vigorous yelping about the pain will also help it discharge.

“Much of pain stores as fear. If we don’t discharge the pain fully, new pain will restimulate the fear as well as the old pain. We can also end up feeling more fearful in general.

“Nausea is at least partly fear, and it too will discharge. If we throw up[18] and can shake instead of suppressing the nausea with drugs, we’ll discharge lots of fear.

“People with cancer should consider feeling every step of the cancer and the treatment, not numbing themselves to it, and discharge fully on this ahead of time. We know that some numbing drugs interfere with healing and that if people can avoid taking them, they’ll recover faster. (There may sometimes be a rational reason to take a drug—for example, if someone can’t hold still enough without it, or if someone has lost too much weight and can’t afford to be throwing up.) Some people can’t stand[19] the pain, so they take narcotic drugs. Narcotics lay in heavy recordings and can reinforce feelings of not being strong enough to ‘take it,’[20] of being powerless to fight, and so on. But taking or not taking drugs is the decision of the persons with cancer. Our only role is to counsel them to consider that they don’t have to—that they could do it without them. If they take them, we need to remember that it’s the best they can do, and they can clean up the effects after they’ve stopped taking them. However, the more they can avoid the drugs, the better. We can suggest that they stretch out the time between doses, postponing a dose as long as they can. We can keep asking them to consider taking a lower dose, or stopping a drug now instead of later. We need to help them get off the drugs as soon as they can and start discharging again on the feelings that were numbed.”

Sam did decide to use narcotic drugs during his last weeks of treatment. That was restimulating to some of the RCers on his team who felt that because the drugs interfered so much with the discharge and re-evaluation process, it didn’t make sense for us to spend time with him until he’d finished taking them. I didn’t agree and sent out the following note to his support team:

“While the narcotic drugs limit his ability to access the discharge and re-evaluation process, I think it is important that we continue to spend daily time with Sam—listening to him, connecting with him, reminding him of reality. My main goal in this period is for us to use our session time with him to keep breaking through the heavy isolation Sam is chronically struggling with and that has been heavily restimulated during the treatment. Leaving his feelings of isolation unchallenged confuses his perspective and undermines his health and recovery. I try to find ways to make real contact with him in sessions or during a visit. While discharge helps him make contact, and the drugs interfere with the discharge, I think it’s important for him, and for us, that we stay with him until he’s through this heavy restimulation brought on by the cancer, radiation, and chemotherapy.”

We cut back the number of sessions we were giving him to one a day—partly because people had extended themselves so much and I wanted them to have more sessions themselves to get ready for giving Sam more sessions again after he was finished with the drugs. Once he was off the drugs (withdrawal wasn’t pleasant, and discharge was important), his ability to discharge, hold to a hopeful perspective, and fight for himself returned.

Having shared all these general thoughts about counseling someone with cancer, it’s important to say that every person is an individual and needs to be thought about personally.

[1] Diane Shisk is the Alternate International Reference Person for the Re-evaluation Counseling Communities.

[2] In shape means in good condition, prepared.

[3] Material means distress.

[4] Hold on to us for dear life means hold on to us tightly, without restraint.

[5] Out of hand means quickly, without giving them any consideration.

[6] Barge in means intrude forcefully and thoughtlessly.

[7] Right up front means directly.

[8] Back off means stop doing what you’re doing and give me space.

[9] Tricky means potentially confusing.

[10] Take them on means face them and fight against them.

[11] All-out means full, total.

[12] Take on means face and confront.

[13] Set them up for means place them in the position of.

[14] Falling short means failing to do a good enough job.

[15] Sucked into means pulled toward.

[16] Giving up means surrendering, abandoning the effort.

[17] Tim Jackins

[18] Throw up means vomit.

[19] Can’t stand means can’t bear to feel.

[20] ‘Take it’ means bear to feel it.


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00