It’s one of the hardest choices many people will make in their lives, but also one of the most powerful. Forgiveness can be many things—frightening, challenging and, ultimately, freeing—but at its core, forgiveness is a choice.
Research shows that people who forgive are more likely to have higher self-esteem, lower blood pressure, fewer stress-related health issues and better immune system function, among other health benefits. To explain the role of forgiveness for cancer patients, we turned to Dr. Lynn Bornfriend, Psychiatrist at our hospital in Philadelphia.
What does it mean to forgive someone?
Forgiveness is a personal decision to move on and let go of the feeling of being wronged, to not be ruled by it or have it influence your actions, responses and the way you look at the world. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or accepting that what happened was okay. If something you’ve done in life is preventing you from living fully, you can achieve self-forgiveness by deciding to move forward and live your beliefs. If you feel like you were selfish before, then choose to live in an unselfish way.
Why is forgiveness important for cancer patients?
Obviously, no one wants to get cancer. But it presents an opportunity to take stock of your life, and determine what’s truly important to you and what you value the most. It’s a chance to stop living from “I’ll get around to it sometime,” and to live in the present, to say what you need to say and move on from past hurts. This life-changing disease gives you the opportunity to reflect and reconsider your journey to this moment.
When should cancer patients focus on forgiveness?
At the beginning, when you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s a moment of panic. Then there’s some time where you settle into a routine and a new normal. At that point, you can start to think about how you want to live. Forgiveness is one of the choices I think should be attended to because it helps you make other choices, such as the kind of life you want, your relationships and other life goals you want to achieve.
What does the act of forgiveness allow?
It allows you to live with pleasure, satisfaction and fulfillment. Having forgiven also allows you to impact others—to guide, educate and parent. It allows you to support those you love, ease their situations and model for them what’s important.
If you’ve found it difficult to get past being wronged by someone you love, think about the positive impact of forgiveness and the negative effects of holding a grudge. In our conversation, Dr. Bornfriend shared a quote from Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years before becoming South Africa’s first black president, which sums up the power of forgiveness in anyone’s life:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”
See our infographic to learn more about forgiveness, including how to forgive.