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Wounded Healers in Oncology Nursing

By being aware of one’s own woundedness (including the wound of our mortality) we can be more effective healers in our work as healthcare professionals.
By Richard Dickens, MS, LCSW, Director of Client Advocacy, CancerCare

The concept of the “wounded healer” hails from the beginning of Western medicine and speaks to holistic care. 

Hippocratic medicine created a rift in holistic care producing a separation between mind (psyche) and body (soma). For healthcare professionals, especially nurses and doctors, this separation created a hierarchy where roles of healer and patient are strictly defined and the shared humanity found in suffering is cut off. The wounded healer, exemplified by the Greek myth of Chiron (who taught the healing arts and suffered from a wound that never healed) informs us how our shared suffering can open the door to compassion and empathy. Understanding the physical and psychological suffering of patients with cancer could be the basis for holistic care.

Much of nursing is working by hand. The role of touch in healing, not just physical touch, allows one to touch and be touched emotionally, at the heart level. It is often in silence, in the vulnerable space of not knowing the answer, that the door can be opened to healing and transformation in the clinical encounter.

Connecting with Patients

By being aware of one’s own woundedness (including the wound of our mortality) we can be more effective healers in our work as healthcare professionals. Adopting the stance of the wounded healer means that the clinical relationship is 2-way: we both heal and are healed by our patients. Allowing oneself to be wounded and vulnerable can actually be healing to patients.

Doctor and best-selling author Rachel Naomi Remen struggled with Crohn’s disease and its impact on her life. In her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” she wrote: “Over forty-seven years of illness I have been helped and fixed by a great number of people. I am grateful to them all. But all that helping and fixing left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals…. The best definition of service I have come across is a single word, BELONGING. Service is the final healing of isolation and loneliness. It is the lived experience of belonging.”1

In the book, “The Wounded Healer,” author and theologian Henri Nouwen wrote: “Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, therefore does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains, but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition that we all share.”2

Further on, he writes,“it is healing because it takes away the false illusion that wholeness can be given by one to another. It is healing because it does not take away the loneliness and the pain of others, but invites them to recognize their loneliness on a level where it can be shared.” 2

The Danger of Overidentification with Patients

The opposite of inflation is overidentification with the patient’s own wounds, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed and burned out. Here is where the clinician can become harmed, and it is part of the rationale for maintaining strong professional boundaries. That is why it is important to maintain self-care, which could include journaling, dream work, mindfulness, psychotherapy, prayer and exercise as a way of becoming more conscious of wounds or at least more aware of their inner process and own inner-healer.

Vincent Corso, M.Div, LCSW identifies ways to train wounded healers in healthcare: “Their success is built on outcomes from good supervision, professional education, and psychotherapy. A nurse's commitment to the practice of self-care can be an advantageous means of maintaining personal and professional boundaries. Such practices allow nurses to truly be present with their patients without being completely overwhelmed by the painful complexities before them.”3
  1. Remen RN. My Grandfather’s Blessing: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. New York, NY: Riverhead Books; 2000: 199-200.
  2. Nouwen H. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York, NY: Image Book; 1979: 94-95, 98.
  3. Corso VM. Oncology Nurse as Wounded Healer: Developing a Compassion Identity. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2012;16(5):448-50. doi: 10.1188/12.CJON.448-450.

Talk about this article with nurses and others in the oncology community in the General Discussions Oncology Nursing News discussion group.
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