With a cancer diagnosis comes fear, confusion and many questions. Cancer patients are quickly inundated with tons of information, much of it conflicting. Advice comes from well-meaning family, friends and even strangers. Being able to distill medical material and navigate the process can be scary and overwhelming for nearly everyone on the cancer journey.
Mindfulness is a practice that reduces the intensity of fear and the racing, non-linear thoughts known as “monkey mind.” Engaging in meditation and other mindfulness practices gives patients and caregivers a sense of self-efficacy, which has been shown to produce improved immune system function. The 4 C’s of Mindfulness offers a helpful conceptual framework and practical tools to respond more skillfully, and with more ease and wisdom, during the cancer journey.
Dr. Lissa Rankin states that the body’s natural repair mechanisms are enabled when we are in a relaxed state. The relaxed states produced by mindfulness practices allow the body to repair and heal. When anxious, the amygdala (fear center) literally hijacks the cerebral cortex (rational functions) resulting in fuzzy thinking and a stressful state. This makes it difficult to “think straight” and make wise decisions about treatment and cancer care.
A cancer diagnosis can be traumatizing, and treatment can be very disruptive to normal life. The stress produced through this process is often enormous. Cultivating a sense of calm gives the patient a solid approach to addressing fear and other feelings. Learning to effectively breathe and simply focus on the breath moment-to-moment serves as a powerful ally. Deep belly breathing can also help the patient (and caregiver) get through tough treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. By cultivating more calm via meditation and other mindfulness practices such as focused breathing, the patient can feel better and make wiser decisions.
Recent studies show that mindfulness can serve as a powerful complimentary weapon in cancer treatment. In one example, a 2016 Duke University study demonstrated how meditation can have a positive, influential effect on anxiety, pain and fatigue during a breast cancer biopsy. Many other studies have shown that meditation lowers inflammation in the body. Calming the mind helps soothe the body, a valuable benefit in the cancer journey.
Compassion is at the heart of mindfulness. Gentling your spirit, showing kindness to self, and eliminating harsh self-talk are critical ideas during cancer treatment and recovery. Anger at cancer and even oneself is normal. Being able to release anger toward self is vital for health. Internalized rage is not helpful and only produces inflammation and cortisol, both counterproductive to healing. We encourage radical self-compassion after a cancer diagnosis. This is a significant time to be kind and caring toward yourself.
Compassion is an open-hearted way of being in the world, backed by wisdom and equanimity. This means putting yourself first in terms of self-care. This may mean saying yes to yourself and no to others more frequently. Boundaries are an essential form of compassion. Compassion for self may vary depending on the day or circumstances. It may mean packing a healthy lunch, taking time to meditate, enjoying a favorite food or spending time with a loved one. Engaging in the kind, gentle practices of mindfulness becomes good medicine during the cancer journey. Self-love and self-care allow the body to relax and dilate, which results in better circulation and less constriction!
The time after diagnosis and during treatment characteristically is a period of great reflection and immense confusion. Decisions and next steps can be perplexing and pressurized. Guidance from medical personnel and loved ones can be difficult to sift through and process clearly. Mindfulness allows patients to be quiet and still enough to hear their own deepest wisdom. Meditators are more likely to act from their internal strength and wisdom instead of the voice of fear.
Everyday life can be challenging and confusing, even in the best of health. In the swirl of the cancer journey, however, those feelings of being challenged, scared and confused are greatly exacerbated. Mindfulness allows the patient to stop in the present moment and let the particles of stress settle. Clarity is gained through the daily practice of meditation along with a commitment to practice the 4 C’s. Within the structure of meditation, the patient is more able to observe thoughts from a calm witness perspective rather than fusing with those thoughts. This practice brings forth clear thinking and wise action.
Today is a new day! Mindfulness permits a helpful realization to emerge: that the point of authentic power is always in the present moment. Habits can be changed. Cancer brings forth crystal clear awareness of the impermanence of life. The truth is that life is impermanent for everyone. Life is a moment-to-moment experience. While it isn’t actually possible to live in the past or the future, the frightened mind tends to reside in those two (2) dimensions. Mindfulness guides us to choose how we want to approach this very moment without judgment.
For the cancer patient, leaning into the now is critical to being able to cope with all that cancer brings. This enables the patient to rest in the knowledge that they are head of their medical team and that they always have choices. What is the next best choice to make? The good news, despite a cancer or other life-threatening diagnosis, is that skillful choices can be made right now to move forward with grace, calm, expanded awareness and a renewed lease on life. We get to choose our focus, regardless of the circumstances, even with cancer. What we choose to tell ourselves, participate in, or focus on, can lift us up or bring us down. Choice offers personal empowerment, which is key for cancer patients, survivors, and their families.
Invite us to bring the 4 C’s of Mindfulness to your next event, conference or retreat! We speak on Cancer Care, Integrative Oncology, and Mind-Body Medicine in various formats. We’ve been working in the field of integrative oncology for over 10 years at Thomas Chapman Cancer Wellness Piedmont Healthcare. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a time to talk about how we may be of service to your group. Learn about our full range of services. Download your free mindfulness meditation. Listen to us being interviewed on Newstalk 1160 AM Radio here on “Mindfulness in the Workplace”: