The Beauty of Mindfulness in Cancer

A rapid ride through the mind

During the toughest periods, a cancer journey can be likened to a novice on a rafting expedition into the unknown. There is a journey to navigate which has a beginning and an end. An unfamiliar face, the guide, gives you a broad run down of the itinerary. On edge you listen to the safety brief, taking mental notes of key points which you promptly forget.

The brain can only filter so many manoeuvres, risks and instructions.

Righty-o, it’s happening! You sign the waiver, don the life jacket and jump in feet first. With a white-knuckled grip you hold on tight and trust that you have made the right decisions. You look over your shoulder to check that someone of importance is reading the map with complete precision. You hope like hell that the compass is working. You pray that the team know how to adjust course as needed to manage any unexpected challenges or findings. While you have a voice to raise concerns, you are somewhat of a passenger on this journey.

On the river you wish you were in control. Sometimes you are, sometimes you are not. You try to match your oar strokes to the pace of the river, but at times you have to realise that you are not in control, the river is. Running rapids, be careful not to loose your footing, the consequences could be catastrophic. You know you have to get in to the centre of the river and avoid the trouble at the edges. This is shit scaringly, pant changing frightening. With a racing heart and shallow breaths you become weary. You pray not to capsize. You pray for stillness.

You welcome a lull, a break from the chaos. The water is still. A moment to regroup, rest and recharge. An opportunity to just breathe and take in some of the scenery. An opportunity to remember and reflect on why you have taken this voyage. You reminisce about your goal, getting to the final destination (treatment complete).

Another rapid ahead. The guide announces that an unscheduled stop is required, it’s time for a team re-group. WTF does that mean? We need another plan! Your mind is full with episodes of worse case scenario, fear of the unknown and concern for your other team- your team at home.

It takes every fibre of your being to gather composure, to follow the instructions of the guide and paddle paddle paddle. After all, letting the team down is not an option. But really, all you want to do is to have a break from the journey…

So, how do you have a break? When you are riding the rapids of the cancer journey your mental fitness will be put to the test. The parent/patient role juggle, competing demands, future fears, increasing appointments, treatment regime, unmanaged symptoms, relationship breakdowns, grief, the mounting bills…will all require a skill set to support your mental well-being. Mindfulness is a foundational skill that will help you ride the rapids, at any time, and in any weather.

I have invited Dr Emily Amos, a General Practitioner and Mindfulness Meditation Teacher to share some of the important foundations of mindfulness. Whether you are new to the concept, or have been dabbling in the mindfulness movement for some time, I’m sure you will thoroughly enjoy Emily’s advice.

The Beauty of Mindfulness

By Dr Emily Amos: General Practitioner, Mindfulness Meditation Teacher

Have you ever found yourself worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet? Or something that happened in the past, that no matter how much you worry about it, you can no longer change?

Me too. 

One thing that is common to the human experience is that most of our worries and anxieties come from thinking about moments that are not happening right now.

You see, our minds are incredible things, they find patterns in an attempt to make our lives easier.

When something happens to us like we hear bad news or have a physical symptom, we tend to immediately (and often subconsciously) recall similar things that have happened to us in the past.

Our amazing minds then layer these recalled memories to the new event unfolding in-front of us. They ‘fill in’ the gaps and try to help us process things in an accelerated way.

The problem is, our minds also have a tendency to recall negative experiences more easily than positive ones. After all, it was surviving negative experiences that has often historically led to our survival. “Don’t eat those berries”. “Don’t touch hot surfaces”. We remember these things and learn lessons from them.

We also use these thoughts and memories to project into the future. Our minds are often planning out a path for us using only the information that we have at our disposal right that that time (which of course is not all the information we will ever have). Creating a ‘reality’ that hasn’t and may not ever even happen.

So what is the problem here?

The issue is that for most of us, this natural tendency of the mind to move forward or backwards, past or future, means that without realising it, we are not actually purely dealing with the present moment in front of us. We’re constantly dealing with the present moment, PLUS past memories or the present moment, PLUS future worries (or all three at once!). Cue overload!

There is a lot for the mind to deal with. Especially when we’re under periods of stress such as ill health.

So what can we do about it?

We can learn how to help our mind to stay present, to just deal with what is going on right now.

Sounds simple hey?

Well this is what mindfulness is. It’s about reminding our amazing and super capable minds that we just need to deal with what is happening right now. Not now PLUS the memories, or now PLUS the future worries. Just now.

How does it help?

First of all, I want you to think about a time that you have been completely immersed in what was happening to you right in that moment. Perhaps you were playing a sport, or listening to music, or playing with your kids?

Have a think about how you felt in that moment?

Happy? Stress free? Lighter?

What words would you use to describe that moment?

So in that moment, when you were only focussed on exactly what was happening to you right then- you were being mindful.

This is what mindfulness does for us. It helps to remove those extra layers of worry or feelings that we tend to add to thoughts or things that happen to us. And by allowing thoughts to simply just be, we find that it is easier to process things one step at a time. 

This can be a really helpful skill to master not just for our day to day, but also for when we find ourselves dealing with tough times. When you’re dealing with significant health issues (like cancer) you’ve often got lots of upcoming appointments and scans, all of which it is very easy to think about using your experience of previous appointments or scans. So not only are you worrying about these upcoming things, but you’re also carrying the load of all your previous scans, appointments and results. Being able to gently bring your attention back to the here and now when you find it snowballing ahead can be a really useful way to help you to manage feelings of anxiety about upcoming results.

So how do we do it?

Well, there are certain things that we experience that you might not have ever really thought about, but that it is impossible to experience at any other moment than right now.

Things like our breath. 

Each breath rises and falls, making way for the next breath. We just can’t physically breathe more than one breath at a time. 

The breath, by its nature, can only happen now. 

And now. 

And now. 

In this way, our breath can become almost like an anchor. Each time we feel our mind racing forwards or backwards, past or future, we can remind ourselves- breathe in, breathe out. 

Our breath actually anchors us in this very present moment.

This is why we often use our breath in our mindfulness practice to remind us to constantly come back to the now. By actively making some time to sit, close our eyes and watch our breath, we find that although our mind wanders (after all, every mind does this), we can always come back to the next breath. It doesn’t matter how many times our mind wanders, or how many times we come back, there is always a next breath that we can anchor to.

Sometimes however, the breath can feel a bit overwhelming or even a bit suffocating. So we find a different anchor, something that works for us in that moment. 

Something like closing our eyes and listening out for the sounds we can hear around us. 

The great thing about our senses is that they are bringing in information to our brains, right as it is happening. This information might trigger memories in our minds of times we’ve heard those sounds before. Often, we find our mind wanders off and follows those memories sometimes, but just as we did with our breath, we simply guide our attention back to the next sound we hear. Again and again, there is always a next sound. Just like our breath. This is also known as meditation.

These practices can be done anywhere, anytime. Whenever we find our mind racing or if we have a spare moment that we want to just sit and notice our thoughts. The ‘point’ of mindfulness isn’t actually to change our thoughts, it’s simply to notice them as they are.

If our mind is racing, we are simply taking some time to notice that our mind is racing. And then we come back to our anchor. Again and again. In this way, there is no such thing as a “bad meditation”. Even the ones where our mind races and wanders, the skill of meditation isn’t in holding the mind tightly, never letting it veer off course. It is in always coming back to our anchor, again and again.

Like all new things, these practices may feel difficult when we first start them. Our minds and bodies are so used to being busy, that sitting in silence can actually feel uncomfortable. This is normal and part of the process. Over time, as we gift ourselves the time to meditate more and more, we find that it becomes easier to notice our thoughts without veering off course with them.

We can watch thoughts come and then watch them go without all the emotional turmoil that often gets left in their wake. And the more we do this, the more we are able to actually be more mindful even when we’re not meditating. We carry these skills with us through out our day and begin to notice when we are starting to veer off course and our thoughts and minds are beginning to snowball. It becomes easier to self correct our course, to come back to our anchor.

Like all things that are worthwhile, it does take some commitment. But as little as 5 minutes once or twice a day can help you to be more mindful. There are apps such as Smiling Mind or Insight Timer that can help you to stay on track with cultivating this new habit and giving you some guided meditations to start your journey. Over time, you may find that you want to meditate without the guided script. It doesn’t actually matter how you do it, the key is to do something- consistently. Small amounts amplified over time. 

About Emily

Dr Emily Amos: General Practitioner, Mindfulness Meditation Teacher

I really love everything about mindfulness.

I remember before I learnt more about this amazing skill, I used to feel really alone with my mind. I felt like so often it would race ahead of me and all I could do was find some form of distraction to try and numb out this constant bombarding of thoughts. Since practicing mindfulness, I’ve learn how to be present for all these thoughts. How to let them play out without getting involved in them (unless I want to). Mindfulness isn’t about numbing me to my mind, it’s about giving me the power to choose which thoughts and feelings I engage with.

If you would like to learn more about mindfulness you can reach out via my website

We hope that you enjoyed this article. Please drop us a comment below, we would love to hear from you.  

X The Awakened Mumma, Author of ‘A Woman’s Guide to Navigating the Invisible Cancer Load

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