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Sabini, M. Maffly, V.H. (1981). An Inner View of Illness: The Dreams of Two Cancer Patients. J. Anal. Psychol., 26(2):123-150.

(1981). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 26(2):123-150

An Inner View of Illness: The Dreams of Two Cancer Patients

Meredith Sabini and Valerie Hone Maffly


We Have Collaborated for some time on psychotherapeutic work with cancer patients, and recently witnessed a rather unusual series of dreams that we would like to present here. Papers by Lockhart (14) and Hyman (10) introduced the study of dreams in regard to the illness process in cancer. Other clinical observations and research, carried out primarily over the past three decades, have established evidence for a general pattern of experiences (not necessarily a personality pattern) which can be found in a majority of cancer patients, and strongly suggest that the cancer site is symbolic of the nature of the particular psychic wound. By making a careful study of the unconscious material from two cancer patients, we have been able to observe the inner aspect of this pattern. We hope that this paper will illustrate the value of this approach—the inner approach—to understanding not only cancer, but perhaps other illnesses as well.

The dreams of David, a patient seen for psychotherapy at the Psychosomatic Medicine Clinic by one of us, V.H.M., give the outline of an individuation process, and tell us something about the place of illness in that process. We can see how an illness such as cancer is viewed by the unconscious, from dreams which directly address the idea of psychosomatic unity. Because the series shows a condensed but full circle of movement toward wholeness, we can see what kinds of changes that process would involve. The dreams also show that the bodily site of illness is a physical version of the central psychic wound. In the case of David the healing process remained largely potential, but that does not impose a limit on what can be learned from studying the dreams. As we know, the unconscious continually and cyclically brings up material that may lead toward growth even if the ego is unable to integrate it. Some of the reasons why the enumerated changes could not occur are themselves important, for they too belong to the cancer pattern.

A remarkably similar case was found in the book And a time to die by Mark Pelgrin (PELGRIN 16). Pelgrin was a teacher who left his personal journal covering the time he had liver cancer and was in psychotherapy.

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