Mindfulness Meditation: Finding Peace and Ease While Living with Cancer

Cancer survivors and caregivers have many common concerns and challenges.  In my classes, most people say that cancer has shown them that life is precious and that they are in the fight of their lives’.  This struggle to survive is often fraught with stress and anxiety.  In addition to the effects of treatment, there can be depression, anger, and despair, all of which rob one of the qualities necessary to act skillfully.

You need all the resources you can muster in order to be grounded, compassionate, and clear-headed during treatment, recovery, or possibly death.  There is a way to live with cancer with greater ease and resourcefulness through mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the awareness that happens when you consciously and open-heartedly pay attention in the moment, letting go of judgment and pre-conceived ideas.

Mindfulness meditation has been practiced for over 2,500 years.  It is based in Buddhist thought but is fundamental to many traditional contemplative practices.  (You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness meditation.)  The practice of mindfulness includes the intentional cultivation of present-moment awareness in your everyday experiences and setting time aside from daily activity to practice mindfulness meditations.

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic to help patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center alleviate their physical and emotional suffering.  This small beginning flowered into the world’s largest stress reduction clinic.  There are now hundreds of mindfulness-based stress reduction clinics all over the world and thousands of peer reviewed studies about the effects of mindfulness.  There are thousands of peer reviewed studies showing mindfulness to be an evidence-based therapy.

There are many studies about mindfulness and its benefits for cancer patients.  They show positive improved psychological functioning, reduction of stress symptoms, enhanced coping and wellbeing in cancer outpatients.  This adds up to a greater sense of peace, ease, and resiliency while living with cancer.  The stillness that comes with mindfulness meditation fosters deep, physical relaxation and an opening of the heart. Through present moment, nonjudgmental awareness, the body and mind access internal healing resources and deep compassion.

This is a deceivingly simple practice that can change your life significantly.  Let’s explore how.

Whether we are dealing with physical illness or not, most of us spend the majority of our time not really living our own lives.  We live on auto-pilot.  Our minds are in the past or the future or in a daydream.

In a recent study conducted through Harvard University, researchers found that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.  The research, by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert is described in the journal “Science.”  Killingsworth and Gilbert write “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”  Mindfulness provides an antidote to this mind wandering through the conscious cultivation of present-moment awareness.

One problem with the wandering mind is that when it wanders we are not living our own lives.  Most of us are glad to be alive, but we are simply not present to our lives.  Mindfulness provides a way to tune into life and live it as if it matters.  Consider saying goodbye every morning to a loved one.  Often, we say goodbye unconsciously, without really connecting with our loved one.  Meanwhile, the mind is elsewhere.  We may be preoccupied with what’s next in our day, or something that happened in the past, or just checked out.  We miss out on the look in that person’s eyes, maybe the very thing that lets you feel love.

Mindfulness provides you with a way to tune in to life and live it as if it matters.  When you are aware in the moment you can tap in to the beauty and meaning of life; the eyes of a loved one, the importance of certain people in your life, that there is still more right with you than wrong with you even if you are ill.  One factor of wellbeing is being present in order to be grateful.  Sometimes when a person is ill, the symptoms become overwhelming and all consuming.  This is totally understandable and normal.  Mindful awareness can help you to broaden awareness to more of your experience so as to bring life into greater balance.

Another reason we suffer because of the wandering mind is that we typically don’t know where the mind is and what it is up to.  The mind has a mind of its own, and when left untended, it can travel to some pretty scary places.  Mark Twain said “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened”.  When we are in the moment we are more likely to know when the mind wanders away, giving us a chance to decide on what’s important in the moment and where to place our attention.  Mindfulness meditation provides training in awareness and reorienting to what is important.

Even though you may spend little time in the moment, mindfulness is an inborn capacity.  So, you already have the ability to be aware in the moment inside you.  As you age from childhood on, you lose touch with the moment.  You have things to do and learn, and expectations to meet.  Often enduring abuse or suffering makes you want to leave the present.

Suffering is also a part of the life into which you were born.  (Yes, this sound like a hard fact of life, but it is the truth.)  You were also born with the natural inclination to avoid difficulty and move toward the pleasant.  But aversion and grasping are the cause of much of our suffering.  For example, let’s say you have difficult physical sensations caused by cancer treatment.  Most of the time, you will tense up around the sensations and think something like “Oh no, I can’t stand this!” or “How long is this going to last?”  The tension and thoughts cause physical and emotional suffering.  So, how you relate to the initial painful sensations will determine how much more you suffer.

Mindfulness can help you to bring awareness to the difficulty and let go of the struggle to change it in the moment. Your experience is clouded by the struggle to make it different.  Open-hearted awareness helps you to know what you need to do about the difficulty, if anything.  Sometimes simply resting and allowing things to be as they are can help you to heal.  This does not mean that you lie down on the tracks and let the railroad car roll over you.  (And mindfulness mediation is not an alternative to competent medical treatment.)  It means that you acknowledge what is happening, open to the truth of it, let go of judgment and struggle.  This opens you to the wisdom and compassion needed to take good care of yourself.

Mindfulness is a process of growing from the automatic, unconscious reaction to a calm awareness of proactive choice, change and freedom. The practice of setting time aside from your daily activities and being mindful of daily activities is a practice that can help you find peace and freedom from suffering.  By applying nonjudgmental awareness to the activity of the mind, we begin to awaken from automatic thinking and become less attached to the stresses of “what-if” thinking. As we develop this nonreactive approach to our thoughts and feelings, we learn that we are not our thoughts, feelings or disease. We are no longer defined by our disease.

If you are interested in exploring mindfulness, there are many resources and tips of which you can take advantage:

Mindful Living

Center for Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts Medical Center


Stress Reduction Tips:

  • Make ordinary, repetitive occasions such as the telephone ring or a stoplight a reminder to notice your breath and activity of your mind for a few moments.
  • Practice bringing mindful attention to various daily activities, such as brushing your teeth, making your bed, driving, etc.
  • Make waiting in the doctor’s office a time to turn inward and ask yourself “Am I awake now?”
  • When you’re in a hurry, ask yourself, “Do I really need to hurry?”
  • Experiment with being compassionate and nonjudgmental with yourself when you are reminded of your limitations.

Sitting Meditation Tips:

  • Sit in a comfortable and dignified position.  If you are using a chair, sit in one with a straight back with your feet flat on the floor or a bolster if your feet don’t reach the floor.  If you sit on the floor, you may want to sit cross-legged style with a thick cushion to raise your buttocks.  Either way, the point is to embody the wakefulness that you are cultivating through mindfulness practice and in a position that you can maintain for a while.  Allow your hands to rest comfortably on your lap.
  • If it is comfortable, close your eyes.  If not, keep your eyes open, positioning your head straight ahead and then lower your gaze to a spot on the floor.
  • Make a gentle intention to be alert and aware of your experience.
  • When you are ready, draw your attention to your breathing.  Notice your breath wherever you notice it the most.  Allow the breath to be as it is.  Don’t try to change your breathing, just bring gentle awareness to it.
  • During meditation, the mind will leave the breath.  This is not considered a distraction, but part of the practice.  You do not have to try to suppress thoughts.  Each time you notice that your mind has left your breath, take no responsibility for its wondering.  The mind simple wanders.  With patience and gentleness, bring your attention back to the breath.  If you notice that you are judging yourself during this process, you can let go of that judgment.
  • You may start with a few minutes or as long as you want.  People with an established practice typically meditate for 20 to 45 minutes.
  • When your practice of focusing on the breath feels stable, you can expand your attention to include focusing on your body as a whole, your thoughts and feelings or perhaps the sounds around you.  Note the nature of thoughts and feelings and that individual thoughts do not last long.  Avoid being drawn into thinking about the thoughts, simply observe and note them.  Come back to your breath if you get lost in this process.
  • If you have the urge to react to physical sensations, such an itch, simply notice the urge and stay with the focus of your meditation.  After experimenting allowing the sensation to be present without changing, if you feel you need to move, then do so with awareness.

Adapted from “Full Catastrophe Living,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

The information found here is not intended to provide nor should it be interpreted to provide professional medical, legal or financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information.

Category: Experts Speak