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Article by Grace Gawler



During the last 13 years of my life I have been intimately involved as a patient.  One who has had 20 surgical procedures, including ileostomies, colostomies and procedures that have left me with little remaining bowel. 

 How did this happen to a healthy, disease free person who has been a vegetarian since five years of age, who had a high fibre diet and who enjoyed plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and juices?  As well I am blessed with a vibrant gene pool of long livers most of whom died from old age. I meditated and practised Tai Chi daily, enjoyed my four children and lived my passion. 

 So what happened? I was vulnerable to the emotional effects of a very personal uninvited change; one against which I had no immunity.  The power of my own emotions and my vulnerability to experience sudden loss and grief surprised me.  I was also surprised by the absolute authority that my emotions had over both my body and rational mind and my utter lack of control to do anything about it. Intellectually I understood this; but to experience it was a different issue. Like many issues in life one never knows grief until one experiences it at that raw primal level.

 My trigger for this event was a deeply personal one. My partner and husband of twenty- three years had suddenly left the family.  It is no coincidence that my uterus totally prolapsed. A great metaphor for the bottom falling out of my life! This was a direct demonstration of the power of emotions as although I had birthed four children I was exceptionally fit and my pelvic floor was in good condition.  Following the subsequent hysterectomy and repair, my rectum and lower bowel became paralysed and did not function again.  Reactions to this whole scenario by friends and colleagues were also interesting. 

 The new age friends as expected all talked of karma, causes and astrology as if  this occurred because I hadn’t paid taxes in a past life! The more conservative did not know how to handle it and so went into silence and denial but a wise mentor said something helpful and simple to me. She said “Bad things happen to good people you know. Just because we do all these things to promote our health doesn’t mean we are immune to the effects of life!”

 I began to realise at first hand the loneliness and isolation that can come with a diagnosis and how afraid people generally are of emotional material and the power it has. Having been a supporter of so many for so long now I was unsupported and cut off from people and life. I was very ill indeed.

 However I knew I had the power of choice to move into victim or victor. My professional training during the last 25 years has had many highlights but walking in the shoes of the patient has been my most profound and fertile. I can now practise from the knowledge and wisdom of the trilogy of experiences of carer, healthcare provider and patient.

  I am fascinated by the power and impact that emotions have on our lives.  Emotions are parallel to dynamic energy. Emotions are energy in motion. That is unless we repress them. When they are in movement and flowing we experience good health. Albert Szent-Georgyi (1960) said “In every culture and in every medical tradition before ours healing was accompanied by moving energy”. When we experience a shock of some kind emotions can move with amazing force and expression and can have physical consequences as in my case.

 My wise mentor also said “Better a rush of energy and a prolapse rather than hanging on to it and growing a tumour!” Maybe she was right.  If we learn to deny and repress our emotional expression the damming up effect can result in us becoming powerless. Too much held too often can take its toll. This can reflect in a sense of deep hopelessness feeling unable to affect change and feeling “stuck” and thus our health becomes compromised. Unresolved emotional, spiritual and physical pain results in an unrelenting ill ease. Repressed emotions can also result in withdrawal from life’s activities and create a void of loneliness and isolation from the community.

 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “Life is like a card game, it is not about being dealt a good hand but how you play a band hand well!”  Some issues in life do just appear out of left field and depending how much spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical credit that we have in that very personal bank account, we may look at the glass as being half full or half empty. 

 If that “bank account” is empty and we are spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and physically bankrupt, we will have little resources (“credit”) left, difficulties with our personal boundaries and a feeling of being numbed to life. This can be identified as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We are often tested in life as to how well we can play that band hand well from the place of the fullness of our being rather than as a victim of life dwelling on the emptiness of our being. In the early stages of healing the effect of the trauma needs to be dealt with in order to move emotional energy, place some deposits in the “bank account” and reframe the experience of life.

 Very little is written about the power of emotions and the impact on our health. I don’t believe that there is a negative emotion. Emotions become negative when they are repressed for too long. Part of my background has been in Cancer support, Natural Therapies, Nutrition and Counselling. My interest in emotions and breast cancer resulted from personal experience.  My partner experienced a recovery from secondary osteogenic sarcoma in 1978. So having served this intense apprenticeship as patient and carer, we decided to share what we had learned with others and co-founded a Cancer support Foundation in Australia.

 As it happened the dominant population who attended our group sessions were women with breast cancer so this is when the subject of emotional healing and breast cancer began to become of great interest to me. Certainly there are many physical causes of breast cancer; but what I was observing was beyond a direct cause as one would usually define it. There was more a background of experiences associated with repressed and difficult emotional events that were very diverse but very important to each woman.  I began to really pay attention to these women’s life stories shared and told with great eloquence in the group environment. There were many common denominators in the hundreds then thousands of women’s life stories.  As a result of repeated requests from female clients who were participating in mixed gender groups, I began gender specific groups for women with breast cancer.

 Inevitably all cancer patients will have a story to tell that is worth listening to.  This initial listening is where a great deal of the healing begins and the traumas of life and diagnosis begin to be recognised, released and resolved. From my point of view, the group method is the best for both initial and ongoing self help and empowerment for women with breast cancer.

 The women in these groups created a tangible yet invisible bond between each other. A skilled group leader becomes a witness to the stories through the art of effective listening. The story having being heard, acknowledged, recognised and respected allows for a safe environment to gently release emotions and recognise that change is required through compassionate understanding of the self and the journey one has taken to this point. The following poem is called Women of Silence. It is a distillation of the stories and experiences told to me by women with breast cancer

Women of Silence 

Women of silence, gentle and strong

Tell me your path, where it first went wrong.

Tell me your story, how you’ve coped with your life.

Tell me about all the trouble and the strife.

I see how you’ve coped withholding the pain

And feel your soul weeping and yet you refrain

From sharing your losses, your griefs and your fears

But you know they multiply over the years.


Until one day your inner wisdom says NO MORE.

You develop an illness, a fiery core

That’s fuelled by a lifestyle out of control.

Too much held too often has taken its toll.


So it’s time to rethink, reassess how it’s been

And develop a strategy previously unseen.

For there is a way to heal with heart and great passion

And let go of withholding which was always your fashion

Nurture yourself and make yourself whole

Live your life fully and realise your goals

Women of Silence, gentle and strong,

Find the courage to heal and to sing your heart’s song.


              Grace Gawler 1994 Women of Silence The Emotional Healing of Breast Cancer. (available online only)

The bottling up of dynamic emotional energy leads to fatigue and spells danger to a woman’s health. Women will often know the pathway that led to the demise of their health; but this too is often shrouded in silence. So breaking the silence is pivotal in initiating healing.  With respect to healing I mean a healing of mind, emotion and spirit. This is about the person rather than the breast cancer cells which belong to the person. Curing and healing are quite different.

 So how can one turn this situation around so that adversity becomes an advantage and the healing process can enhance the curing process?

24 Nov 2010

Article/Information supplied by Grace Gawler

Disclaimer - Any general advice given in any article should not be relied upon and should not be taken as a substitute for visiting a qualified medical Doctor.