How to Cope - Survivor Mastering Mindfulness

How to Find Calm Amid the Tumult of Cancer

Woman with arms outstretchedAs we go about our daily lives, our natural tendency is to focus on planning what we need to do or have to do next. We keep our minds busy with the details of life. For cancer survivors, there may be an added layer of worry, anxiety, or depression about the future. This mental planning and worrying is often dictated by our inner voice, the narrator of our life, a constant reminder of “must-do’s” and “should-do’s.” This way of living – constantly planning, worrying, and thinking about the next step – does not allow this voice to quiet so that we can have the opportunity to live in the moment, to just be. 

This state of quiet reflection is often referred to as mindfulness, or being present with ourselves. Mindfulness allows us to reflect on our lives, but it may also help us clarify what is important and meaningful. It can bring a sense of calm and awareness, and may give us perspective on our experiences.

With principles rooted in Buddhism, mindfulness is not only a way to awaken our minds and be present in the here and now but also a philosophy of living and being. Living mindfully requires that we experience the moment that is passing through us now, to live fully aware.

There are several ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. Mindfulness meditation is one common practice. Mindfulness meditation allows your body and mind to relax and focus on your breath. It works to eliminate intrusive thoughts and promote an open mind and heart. 
Mindfulness allows us to reflect on our lives, but it may also help us clarify what is important and meaningful.Meditation can be practiced alone or with a group. Groups may be led by an instructor who guides you through the steps to reach a state of calm. Audio files and cell phone apps are also available, allowing you the flexibility to practice guided meditation at any time. These guided meditation exercises may use something called a body scan. This exercise allows your mind to slowly focus on each area of the body, becoming aware of how it feels and then allowing it to relax. A body scan compels your thoughts to move elsewhere, freeing your mind. 

Meditation is often referred to as a practice, as it requires a level of commitment to work it into our daily lives and schedules. Practices like gentle yoga and tai chi are also mindfulness-based and usually have a spiritual component that allows time for quiet reflection. 

Another way to practice mindfulness is by paying careful attention to what you are experiencing via listening and looking, observing rather than thinking. Awaken the senses by trying something new and taking the time to notice with fresh eyes how you are experiencing it. Work to ignore intrusive or negative thoughts or worries by acknowledging them and then allowing them to pass through. You can visualize this by picturing your negative thoughts as fish swimming through a stream, allowing them to move on down the stream. 

The philosophy of living mindfully requires a person to alter the normal course of how they view their life and its meaning. It challenges us to live a centered and balanced life, focused on the present, rather than worried about the future. A cancer diagnosis will often force us into a new way of thinking and a new perspective about our lives. The ability to face cancer, or any life-limiting illness, shows that we become aware of what is most human in ourselves by capturing something positive with that which is most difficult. 

Katherine EastonKatherine Easton is a certified oncology social worker with Atlanta Cancer Care, affiliated with Northside Hospital Cancer Institute in Atlanta, GA. She offers coping support and advice to cancer survivors in a private physician practice.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2017.