THE BLOG
06/13/2011 01:41 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2011

Can Forgiveness Overcome Cancer?

I have been troubled lately by the title of a new book called, The Forgiveness Project: The Startling Discovery of How to Overcome Cancer, Find Health, and Achieve Peace, by Rev. Dr Michael S. Barry.
It's not simply that the book borrows the same name of The Forgiveness Project I founded in 2004 -- thus creating possible confusion -- but more that the message of the book is the precise reason I feel the concept of forgiveness is so often misunderstood.

I should state right away that Dr. Barry and myself come from very different disciplines. My work is informed by journalism and his by faith. As a devout Christian, his book comes from a tradition where forgiveness is more of an obligation than a choice. In fact information about the book states, "All religions value forgiveness, but only Christianity requires it".

Personally I don't believe there should ever be an obligation, or even an expectation, to forgive because to suppose that victims should forgive only re-victimizes them.

The organisation I run occupies a very different space -- a place of exploration rather than propagation. While the many stories shared on our website show that forgiveness can be a useful public health tool, for many there are limits to forgiveness. For some it is conditional on remorse, for others forgiveness depends upon the gravity of the offense. Above all, the stories show that forgiveness does not come in a one-size fits all. Not everyone is able to find forgiveness but that does not mean they are poisoned by bitterness or dream of revenge. For instance, Rami Elhanan, whose daughter was killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem in 1997, says that he will neither forgive nor forget, but concludes that

"the suicide bomber was a victim just like my daughter, grown crazy out of anger and shame."

Rev. Dr. Michael Barry is the author of four books aimed at encouraging and strengthening patients and their caregivers in their battle with cancer. With "thorough medical, theological, and sociological research and clinical experience" behind him, he is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church who joined the Cancer Treatment Centers of America as their Director of Pastoral Care at Eastern Regional Medical Center when it opened in 2005. "The Forgiveness Project: The Startling Discovery of How to Overcome Cancer, Find Health, and Achieve Peace" claims to be a book which presents scientific findings in easy-to-understand, accessible language and offers practical steps to help Christians let go of past wrongs and find peace.

I don't deny the link between forgiveness and physical and mental well being. There is plenty of evidence to show that holding on to unresolved resentment for perceived transgressions depletes immune function and causes enormous physical stress to the whole body. Indeed forgiving people score better on just about every measure of psychological well being.

When I asked Frederic Luskin Ph.D, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and a pioneer in the practice of forgiveness therapy, whether he thought the title of the book misleading, his response was: "I would call misleading an understatement." Explaining that while there is "modest evidence forgiveness can affect heart disease and some evidence that short term it makes a difference in all sorts of physiological indicators", he concluded there is "no evidence that I can imagine that it overcomes cancer".

Dr. Everett Worthington, Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a leading expert in the field of forgiveness, conceded that while there had been plenty of research related to coping with cancer and quality of life, "forgiveness has not been related to cancer cure or remission per se." And Dr Kathleen Lawler-Row, Professor of Psychology at East Carolina University who has studied how forgiveness is linked to physical health and successful aging, agreed that,

"To my knowledge there have been no studies that document causal relations between forgiveness and any health outcome, much less overcoming cancer. In fact, those words make little sense in that when does one ever know if cancer is 'overcome'?"

So, although I would largely agree with Dr. Barry when he writes "unforgiveness, including the suppression of negative emotions, is very stressful," anything linking forgiveness and cancer rings loud alarm bells for me. Dr. Barry falls short in his book of actually stating that forgiveness is a cure for cancer but the suggestion is there all the same - particularly in the book's sub-title, "The Startling Discovery of How to Overcome Cancer, Find Health, and Achieve Peace".

Dr. Barry explains that he is not saying forgiveness is the Christian thing to do or the Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim thing to do but that "it's the right thing to do, if what you want is the best chance of beating your disease."

Reading this I'm left with the question, what of those who can't forgive ... are they doomed to succumb to cancer? And what if the cancer returns for any of Dr. Barry's five case studies (like Sharon's story of 'spontaneous remission') - would this mean they had not properly or sufficiently forgiven?