Mindfulness Through Cancer: There Is No One-Size-Fits-All

Meditation is a great coping mechanism and stress reliever that can help anyone, especially those who have been diagnosed with cancer. But since meditation and mindfulness practices look different to everyone, the key to finding the right fit is personal—whether you can carve out two minutes or 20.

Straight from her new memoir, Here We Grow, Mindfulness Through Cancer and Beyond, author Paige Davis shares how different mindfulness techniques helped her cope with a breast cancer diagnosis.

When I first started a regular meditation practice, I was a stereotypical stressed out entrepreneur, on the verge of burnout and desperate for some peace. Then I attended my first meditation training at The Chopra Center and it was a game changer. I learned that I had some misconceptions, and that it’s okay to have thoughts when meditating. I discovered that if we think of mindfulness as a muscle and meditation as daily exercise for our brain, the more we flex it we are actually soothing our nervous system which allows us to be present and able to respond to stressful situations with more ease, compassion, and boosted resilience. I came back and was able to cultivate a daily practice that fit my lifestyle and experienced some tangible benefits – sleeping better, feeling calmer, and more connected to myself and others.

Then on Valentine’s Day, nine-months after starting my meditation practice, I first heard the word cancer. I broke down in tears on the examination table after I unexpectedly asked the doctor what she was seeing on the ultrasound. I knew it was serious because she wanted to perform an immediate biopsy. Just as I saw the needle about to enter my breast, I did the only thing I knew to do in that moment – BREATHE – IN. OUT. I was overwhelmed by a sense of peacefulness. The technique of simple breath awareness accesses the parasympathetic system which naturally calms us. I flash backed to my meditation training and remember the teacher saying as much as its about the seated practice, its really the changes that are happening in our brains and bodies so we can be more responsive vs. reactive in high demand situations. As I felt this wave of peacefulness throughout my body while being somewhat aware that I was experiencing a potentially devastating moment in my life, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is why people meditate.”

Mindfulness is not a one-size-fits-all 

Needless to say, meditation and mindfulness played a monumental role throughout my cancer journey.  But admittedly, it was not a one-size-fits-all practice.  Certain techniques resonated at different times. Prior to my diagnosis, mantra was my primary tool that I learned at The Chopra Center. It’s a practice of gently and silently repeating a series of Sanskrit phrases. This gentle repetition reduces stress and creates new neural pathways in our brains to become and stay relaxed.

Body Awareness Technique

After my first surgery, a bilateral mastectomy with expanders, I turned to the mindfulness technique of body awareness where focusing on physical sensations bring us to present moment. As I endured periods of pain and discomfort, it became a tool to align with my body and treat it with ease and kindness and focus on the actual sensations versus becoming overwhelmed and anxious with the mental thoughts and uncertainty of when I would feel better.

Guided Visualization

When I learned I would need six months of chemo, I turned to guided visualization.  Early on in my diagnosis I chose to view my cancer journey as a love journey versus a battle to be fought and wanted to stay away from terms like fight, battle or poison. Not because I was naïve to the hardship or reality, but because I needed to balance that through a more compassionate lens.  So I worked with my therapist to create guided imagery where I envisioned the chemo as a loving and friendly energy that was part of my healing team, grateful for the healing energy and grateful it was leaving my system so I could feel stronger and engaged with the people and situations in my life after each treatment.

“Loving Kindness”

But it was the “survivorship” period following treatment that really took me by surprise. That period where technically we are done and expected to emerge into our lives again as if nothing has changed, but everything has. Not to mention the many follow-up appointments, scanxiety, and the reality that an ache or pain is no longer something to overlook, but requires vigilance and could be an indicator something much more serious.

During this period, I found myself more tender and emotional because I finally had the emotional and spiritual space to begin to process the trauma of what I’d been through. This is where mindfulness can once again became helpful, because it helps strengthen the parts of our brain that allow us to be more emotionally fluent and helps to be present with the uncertainty in a more productive way. I’ve learned that difficult emotions are not the enemy – it is our reactivity toward them that is harmful.  If we can be present with the sensations of what we are feeling and allow them to be expressed versus suppressed, it helps to transmute that energy and ultimately our breakdowns become breakthroughs where growth and connection are possible.

It is during this survivorship period where I find great comfort in practices like “Loving Kindness” which is a simple, heart-centered meditation technique with roots in Buddhism, sometimes called Metta and helps to cultivate compassion for one’s self and others. This is a tangible practice when so much feels outside of my control and a reminder of the interconnectedness to something beyond my cancer bubble.

It is the combination of all these techniques that serve as my compass as I continue to navigate the unchartered waters of being not just a survivor of breast cancer, but a thriver in life.

Paige Davis is a mindfulness and meditation teacher and breast cancer survivor. This post is based on excerpts from her book Here We Grow: Mindfulness Through Cancer and Beyond  (She Writes Press). Access some of Paige’s favorite free meditations and mindfulness resources at hellopaigedavis.com/resources and follow her on Instagram @hellopaigedavis.

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