When I was going through treatment, delicious breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and delectable desserts arrived in the “magic cooler” outside my garage door most days for over a month. Someone even made a lunch and delivered it to school for my 6th grader every day for a week (because she is my fourth child, and I’ve made over 6,300 lunches over the years — I did the math — what a reprieve!). Cards, emails, texts, and phone calls, offering comforting words from family and friends, arrived daily for months. All provided critical support to my family and me during and after a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy for breast cancer, and demonstrated that “my village” was a powerful social support. A study released last year showed that women with small social networks and low levels of support were 61 percent more likely to die from breast cancer and other causes than those with high levels of support. I knew I was lucky that “my village” was incredibly supportive, but given that significant statistic, I had no idea what an impact that connectedness and support could have.
What if you have cancer and don’t have significant support? That’s a question that has troubled me since my diagnosis. How do you create support? How do you support yourself?
One method I used to support myself during treatment for breast cancer — and that others might find helpful too — is meditation.
Before you stop reading NOW, give me 30 seconds of your time — before learning more about meditation I would have been skeptical, too. But last year, when in the throes of treatment, and when I would have grabbed any lifeline for help, my physical therapist suggested I try meditation to deal with the stress of cancer.
Stay with me here. Close your eyes and focus on your breath for 30 seconds, observing its rhythm. If you find yourself losing focus on your breath and following your thoughts, observe where your mind went, without judging, and simply return to your breathing. Remember not to be hard on yourself if this happens. Just. Focus. On. Your. Breath.
Feel a sense of calm? It can really work. Why?
For that I leave you to an expert on meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn. He wrote one of “the” books on the power of meditation, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. Kabat-Zinn has been a driving force in bringing meditation from the realm of “hippies and gurus” into mainstream medicine. His work is based on bringing calmness to the mind and body and paying attention on purpose in the present moment in a non-judgmental way. The practice of mindfulness meditation can create an inner peace and acceptance that benefit both your physical and emotional well-being. Kabat-Zinn espouses both formal mindfulness meditation and bringing mindfulness to your everyday activities.
Kabat-Zinn teaches a mindfulness meditation course at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. In the last 30 years, Kabat-Zinn has seen countless individuals reduce or relieve pain, fatigue, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, fear, and stress through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
I will be the first to admit that in our fast-paced, 24/7-connected world, it’s hard to set aside time for silence. In my initial attempts at meditation, I found my mind wandering toward my to-do lists and other concerns. How could I sit still for 20 minutes when thoughts such as “did we give the dog his flea medication this month?” and “what other tragedy can strike Downton Abbey?” ran through my head? I discovered that guided meditations in podcasts worked for me. And you can be creative in how you practice. Yoga is meditation, as are prayer and mindful walking, which is particularly wonderful in a park, wooded area, or near water. There is no right way or wrong way to meditate. Some can be inspired to meditate by observing the simplicity of a child in the moment, so I’ve included a picture of my daughter to illustrate this blog.
What I found is that mindfulness meditation cleaned up some of my mental clutter, made me feel more positive and calm, and provided me with an energy boost. It also made me feel as if I was in control of managing some of the side effects of my treatment, which was a powerful feeling.
When meals were brought to my house and comforting messages sent, friends and family were showing me their compassion and kindness and hoping their support would promote my healing. Mindfulness meditation teaches us to connect to our bodies and our minds and treat ourselves with acceptance, compassion, and kindness. Mindfulness meditation centers us, and the more centered we are, the easier we will find connecting with other people. That connectedness, and seeing the basic goodness in ourselves, are meaningful tools in confronting cancer, edging us closer to beating the statistics. When the first step is to simply breathe (what could be easier?), you can begin as you finish this sentence. Give yourself a present, and enjoy the soothing silence.