People often ask me how mindfulness can help people with cancer. There is a good amount of research to show that it helps but I thought it might be more meaningful to share feedback from the course I run for My Cancer My Choices:
1. Hot flushes
A young woman, who I shall call Karen, has hot flushes every 40 minutes as a result of cancer treatment. She described them as severely affecting her sleep and her stress levels and wrote to me to ask if mindfulness could help her. I replied that while mindfulness might not alter the frequency or intensity of the hot flushes, it could make them less bothersome.
Karen decided to try my mindfulness course and reported that although her hot flushes hadn’t got any less frequent, the mindfulness techniques she learnt helped her to tolerate them. The words she used were ‘by sitting alongside them and not reacting.’ This is an important part of mindfulness training, we are supported to accept the things that we are unable to change. We do this exactly as Karen describes, by ‘sitting alongside’ any difficult or painful sensations and breathing with those sensations.
Karen had felt very self-conscious in front of other people at work but was now able to report that ‘people around me don’t even notice I’m having hot flushes anymore. I also manage to get back to sleep a lot quicker when they wake me up at night as I can stop thoughts coming in to my head by concentrating on my breathing etc.’
2. Reducing Fear
After cancer it is natural to be worried about recurrence. Sally said that whenever she felt a twinge of discomfort anywhere in her body, she worried that the cancer might have returned. Once the thought was there, it quickly escalated out of control until she could think of very little else. She felt that her doctor was losing patience with her frequent visits.
During the mindfulness training, Sally became aware that whenever she started to meditate her mind was full of thoughts. She realised that meditation is not about clearing the mind – busy minds are a reflection of our busy lives and are a normal part of being human. She was able to explore the different types of thoughts that she noticed: some she could recognise as ‘worry thoughts’, some as ‘planning thoughts’ and some even as ‘random thoughts’. Sally learned to recognise the thoughts for what they were, just thoughts, some of which might be true and some which definitely were not. She commented that ‘using the mantra Thoughts are not facts” has helped me to cope with all the cancer fears I have.’ It seems that by being more aware of the nature of thoughts, the thoughts themselves became less powerful.
3. Noticing the good things
Jackie’s comment ‘Mindfulness has helped me to find my joy again’ is one of the loveliest pieces of feedback that I have received. Those living with cancer might find it hard to recognise the word ‘joy’ as applying to their life. When we are faced with very difficult situations, it is natural to try to toughen ourselves and harden against the pain and worry. This is one of the ways we keep ourselves going through exhausting treatment. Although blocking things out of our mind can help us to get through in the short term, it can become our ‘default’ position and we can find that we are toughened against the good things as well as the bad.
On a mindfulness course we use short mindfulness practices to help us to be more aware of the pleasant experiences in life. This can be challenging in times when life can seem to bring only suffering. We might spend 5 minutes mindfully eating, or looking at the sky, or spending time outside ‘in nature’. By bringing all our awareness to these experiences, it is common to find that the experience becomes richer. We notice things that we hadn’t seen or felt before and these practices can help us to feel better. By supporting us to live more fully in the present, mindfulness practice helps us to leave behind the difficulties of the past and worry less about the future. Jackie also commented that ‘the Mindfulness course has given me a valuable new perspective on life by being kinder to myself and making time for myself. I have less anxiety and stress and a quieter mind.’
And finally, some advice from Joan for those who don’t have cancer: ‘Don’t wait until you get cancer to re-evaluate your life!! Take a mindfulness course and live your life at a different pace being kinder to yourself.’