Managing psychological stress when you have cancer can be extremely difficult. How can you experience moments of stillness, relaxation and contentment when your mind is constantly preoccupied with your disease and what impact it might have on your future?
Even when the apprehensiveness over a cancer diagnosis is taken out of the equation, getting our mind to embrace a sense of calmness is often difficult. If you start paying attention to where your mind is from moment to moment throughout the day, chances are you will find that considerable amounts of your time and energy are expended in clinging to life’s memories or regretting unfortunate things that have already happened and that are over. And you will probably find that as much or more energy is expended in anticipating, planning, worrying and fantasizing about the future and what you want to happen or don’t want to happen.
Cancer only exacerbates this inclination; in particular there is the fear and uncertainty. Having cancer means facing the unknown trajectory of the disease, the side effects from chemotherapy or other treatments and the possibility of death. Even thought the doctors have reassured me that I’m in remission, I’m often consumed with anxiety. Like thousands of other women in my situation my mind seeks answers to the inevitable questions. How long will I remain in remission? If I have a recurrence, how can I possibly find the physical and emotional strength to contend with going through everything all over again?
I’ve discovered that one of the best ways to quiet my mind and focus my attention is a technique called mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn pioneered using this method with cancer patients and other groups battling chronic pain or illness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Mindfulness is basically just a way of paying attention, a way of awakening our minds and being present in the here and now. With principles found in Buddhism, mindfulness teaches us to live moments in each day rather than focusing on what might lie ahead.
Although mindfulness mediation is frequently taught and practiced within the context of Buddhism, it has been argued that its essence is universal. Mindfulness is universal and transcends nationality or culture because it’s essentially a technique for looking deeply into oneself in the spirit of self-inquiry and self-understanding. For this reason it can be learned and practiced by cancer patients without appealing to Asian culture or Buddhist authority to enrich it or authenticate it. Advocates contend that mindfulness stands on its own as a powerful vehicle for self-understanding and healing.
So how do you learn to live in each moment and remain focused on what is occurring in the present? How do you become skilled at practicing mindfulness? According to Jon Kabat-Zinn and other teachers mindfulness can take a lifetime to fully master. However, getting started isn’t difficult if a person is motivated to practice and doesn’t expect some magic resolution to life’s problems or to all of their cancer related issues. Its been said that the most insidious enemy of any type of daily practice is our North American culture’s relentless celebration of immediate gratification. Below I’ve listed some of the essential principles of living mindfully:
- When a cancer patient approaches mindfulness formally in a group or classroom setting one of the first things that they will learn is how to use focused breathing techniques. This helps them to discover their body and how it responds to stress and other emotions. By concentrating on their breath, they can also gently pull their mind back to the present moment when it wanders.
- Mindfulness is cultivated by simply observing our experiences and not judging them. The natural human tendency is to categorize or label almost everything we see. These judgments often come to dominate our minds, making it difficult to ever find inner peace.
- Some cancer survivors choose to practice mindfulness meditation or gentle yoga. A study just published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that women with breast cancer who practiced yoga had lower levels of stress hormones. They also reported less fatigue and a better quality of life. It’s generally recommended that you ask your doctor if you can participate in yoga, then find a yoga instructor with experience leading a class that includes cancer patients.
- In our overwhelmingly goal oriented and results driven culture mindfulness is one of the few practices that is essentially a non-doing. It has no other goal than for you to be yourself. For example, when you meditate you’re encouraged not to set specific goals such as I’m going to relax now, I’m going to become more enlightened or I’m going to control my pain. You have nothing to strive for, except perhaps a better recognition and appreciation of the present moment.
- Acceptance and letting go are crucial components of mindfulness. A philosophy of mindfulness encourages us to come to terms with our life, even difficult experiences such as a cancer diagnosis. Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. Mindfulness doesn’t require that you have to like your situation—you don’t have to assume a passive attitude toward suffering or life’s unfairness. However, you must come to terms with things as they are and accept them, whether it’s a diagnosis of cancer or learning of someone’s death.
In spite of everything, cancer can be a wake-up call to the value of life, an incentive to live the life we want or believe we were meant to live in the time we have left. Mindfulness, with its emphasis on the present and living each moment fully, can help guide some cancer survivors through this profound journey.