Cancer can certainly make it be difficult to be present and feel engaged in what is happening. And for patients who have been diagnosed with advanced cancer or facing end-of-life issues, their mind can be so full of worry and stress, they struggle to be present and aware of the time they have right now.
Fortunately, there have been many advances in the treatment and management of a cancer diagnosis, and patients are finding alternative ways to cope with both the physical and emotional challenges that come with this disease.
The practice of mindfulness in cancer patients
In recent years, more people have recognized mindfulness and mindfulness training as a way to decrease stress and increase psychological functioning with cancer patients. A 2011 study found that most participants expressed a number of perceived positive effects after participating in the mindfulness program including increased calm, enhanced sleep quality, more energy, less physical pain, and increased well-being. These findings show that through mindfulness, you may be able to enhance your capacity to handle the life stresses that affect the body’s ability to heal.
Micki Fine, M.Ed, L.P.C., a psychotherapist and certified mindfulness teacher, describes mindfulness as a practice that is about living life as if it matters, to pay attention with kindness and respect to moment-to-moment experience, no matter how seemingly mundane. “A cancer diagnosis brings an awareness of the preciousness of life,” Fine explains. “And mindfulness can help us to experience that precious life with greater clarity, balance, and gratitude, one moment at a time.”
One of the many benefits of practicing mindfulness is that it can promote healing, both physically and emotionally/psychologically. By helping to regulate emotions and allowing a patient to work with the physical pain in the body, mindfulness has helped bring a sense of peace to many people living with cancer. “Mindfulness is not a cure for cancer but certainly can contribute to the overall well-being of the body,” Fine says.
Elizabeth Revis, who was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer in 2016, has found that the practice of mindfulness helps her feel more present and in the moment. “I have extreme insomnia and between the pain, the uncertainty of the future, and all the “what if’s,” sleep is near impossible,” Revis says. “Deep breathing and focus have really helped me to relax, as well as spending time reading books on mindfulness. Just the word itself is calming—like a blanket and hot cup of tea for your brain.”
“The very word ‘cancer’ can elicit difficult thoughts and painful emotions,” Fine says. “If you’re like many people with a cancer diagnosis, you might experience thoughts about a future with cancer: thoughts of pain, loss, and even shortened life. These thoughts can be very stressful and contribute to physical and emotional suffering.”
However, Fine believes that it is actually the reaction or relationship to the thought that makes things stressful. “Typically a thought comes and then several things can happen: you may believe the thought, struggle to make it go away or criticize yourself for being pessimistic, among others,” she says. These reactions then bring on more suffering.
Through mindfulness, you can become more aware of thoughts instead of trying to deny or change them. “The informal practice of mindfulness can help you to take a breath, come into the moment, and wake up to thoughts and feelings,” Fine explains. “This interrupts the reactive pattern and adds a pause between the stimulus (a thought, emotion or sensation) and your reaction to it (believing it, feeling anxious or self-critical), thereby giving you greater freedom to make skillful choices about how to respond.”
As you learn to practice mindfulness and become more aware of your thoughts and emotions, alternative responses can arise out of this gentle, kind awareness. According to Fine, some responses that might arise are: realizing that a thought is not necessarily true, feeling more compassionate toward yourself, and allowing thoughts and emotions to be present without fighting them.
Tips for practicing mindfulness:
- Practice mindfulness meditation daily. [Editor’s Note: we recommend Headspace, of course.]
- Turn ordinary, repetitive occurrences like the telephone ringing, standing up or sitting down, stopping in traffic, or taking a sip of water into consideration to notice the breath and activity of your mind for a few moments.
- Choose one daily activity to practice mindfully whether that be brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or walking from the car to the doctor’s office.
- Experiment with being compassionate and nonjudgmental with yourself when you are reminded of your limitations.
- Kindly acknowledge a moment of difficulty by putting your hand on your heart and saying, “This is a moment of suffering. How can I be kind to myself?”
- When you’re in a rush, ask yourself, “Do I really need to hurry?”
- Experiment with welcoming your emotions as they come, instead of pushing them away.
“As you practice mindfulness you can notice the ever changing nature of your experience,” Fine says. “Bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions change all the time, perhaps in subtle ways, but they change. This awareness of impermanence can help you accept what is in the moment a little more easily. With practice, noticing impermanence can help you to treasure your life and all its ups and downs one moment at a time.”
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.