I want to share a story sent to me recently by a healer friend and teacher, Rose Khalsa, who herself received the story from a colleague.  Rose spends part of each week using her skills at a nearby hospice, helping those nearing the end of their lives find peace and healing.  This story about a Tibetan cancer patient teaches us about the nature of healing and the importance of tending to the health of one’s spirit or soul.


Several years ago in Seattle, Washington, there lived a 52-year-old Tibetan refugee.  “Tenzin” was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma.  He was admitted to the hospital and received his first dose of chemotherapy.  But during the treatment, this typically gentle man became extremely agitated and angry.  He yanked out the IV delivering chemotherapy drugs into his arm and refused to cooperate.  He shouted at the nurses and argued with anyone who came near him. The doctors and nurses were baffled. 

Then Tenzin’s wife spoke to the hospital staff.  She explained that Tenzin had been a political prisoner held by the Chinese for 17 years.  They had killed his first wife and tortured and brutalized Tenzin throughout his imprisonment.  She told them that the hospital rules, coupled with the chemotherapy treatments, were giving Tenzin painful flashbacks of what he had suffered at the hands of the Chinese.

 ”I know you mean to help him,” she said, “but he feels tortured by your treatments.  They are causing him to feel hatred inside, just as he felt toward his captors.  He would rather die than live with the hatred he now feels towards the staff here.  And according to our beliefs, it is very bad to have hatred in your heart at the time of death.  He needs to be able to pray and cleanse his heart.”

So the doctors discharged Tenzin and asked the hospice team to visit him in his home. The hospice nurse assigned to his care called a local representative from Amnesty International for advice.  He told her that the only way to heal the wounds of torture is to “talk it though.”

“This person has lost his trust in humanity and feels hope is impossible,” the man added. “If you are to help him, you must find a way to give him hope.”

But when the nurse encouraged Tenzin to talk about his experiences, he held up his hand and stopped her.   “I must learn to love again if I am to heal my soul.  Your job is not to ask me questions. Your job is to teach me to love again.”

The hospice nurse took a deep breath and then asked, “So… how can I help you love again?”

Tenzin replied without hesitation, “Sit down, drink my tea and eat my cookies.” Tibetan drink black tea brewed strong and laced with yak butter and salt.  It isn’t easy to drink!  But she did.  For several weeks, Tenzin, his wife and the nurse sat together drinking tea.  They also worked with his doctors to find ways to treat his physical pain.  But it was Tenzin’s spiritual pain that seemed to be lessening the most.  Each time the nurse came to visit, Tenzin was sitting cross-legged on his bed, reciting prayers from his books.  As time passed, he and his wife hung more and more of their colorful Tibetan banners called “thankas”.  The room was fast becoming a beautiful, spiritual shrine.

When Spring came, the hospice nurse asked Tenzin what Tibetans do when they are ill in the Spring.  He smiled brightly.  “We sit downwind from flowers.”  The nurse thought he must be speaking poetically.  But Tenzin’s words were quite literal.  He told her Tibetans sit downwind so they can be dusted with the new blossoms’ pollen.  they consider this new pollen strong medicine.  At first, finding enough blossoms seemed a bit daunting.  Then, one of the nurse’s friends suggested Tenzin visit some of the local flower nurseries and the nurse called the manager of one nursery to explain the situation.

The manager’s initial response was, “you want to do what!?”  But when she explained further, the manager agreed.  That next weekend the hospice nurse picked up Tenzin and his wife with their provisions for the afternoon– black tea, butter, salt, cups, cookies, prayer beads and prayer books.  She dropped them off at the nursery and assured them she would return by 5.

The following weekend Tenzin and his wife visited another nursery.  The third weekend they found yet another nursery. The fourth week the hospice nurse began to receive calls from these nurseries inviting Tenzin and his wife to come again.  One of the managers said, “We’ve got a new shipment of nicotiana coming in and some wonderful fuchsias and oh, yes, some great daphne, too. I know they would love the scent of that daphne! ”

Later that day, the nurse got a call from the second place saying they had colorful wind socks that would help Tenzin predict where the wind was blowing.  Soon, the nurseries were competing for Tenzin’s visits.

People began to know and care about the Tibetan couple.  The nursery employees started setting out lawn furniture in the direction of the wind.  Others would bring out fresh hot water for their tea.  Some of the regular customers would leave their wagons of flowers near the couple.  It seemed that a community was growing and gathering around Tenzin and his wife.

At the end of the summer, Tenzin returned to his doctor for another CT scan to determine the extent of the spread of his cancer.  Much to the doctor’s surprise, he could find no evidence at all of the cancer.  He was dumbfounded.  He told Tenzin that he couldn’t explain it.

Tenzin lifted his hand and said, “I know why the cancer has gone away. It could no longer live in a body filled with love. When I began to feel all the compassion from the hospice people, from the nursery employees, and all those people who wanted to know about me, I started to change inside.  Doctor, please don’t think that your medicine is the only cure. Sometimes compassion is the better cure for cancer.”


Note that healing is not the same as curing.   Marion Woodman captures it well when she says, “The curing may be in the body, but being cured is not necessarily living a full life.  Healing is coming to wholeness.”  In this story curing and healing converge. And Tenzin’s experience reminds us of the critical need for caregivers to tend to the spirit of the sufferer as well as the mind and body.  So even if Tenzin’s cancer had not been cured, healing on the mind and spirit levels would still have allowed Tenzin to find pleasure and meaning in his last days, and to let go of life feeling a sense of connection and peace.