A cancer diagnosis disrupts a patient’s life. In the long term, you are forced to face your mortality. In the short term, you may be dealing with a series of treatments that leave you feeling weak and vulnerable. Frequently, cancer patients undergoing treatment deal with nausea, pain, and fatigue. They may have trouble eating and sleeping, which only adds to their tiredness. Worry about the future and struggles in the present are a dangerous combination that can lead to constant stress. If no action is taken to deal with this additional stress, patients may make their symptoms even worse.
Every person must deal with stress each day. On most days, there are stress triggers like a looming deadline or a traffic jam. You can feel your body tensing up. Your heart rate increases and your blood pressure rises. Your body is preparing itself for a fight or flight response. Once the stressful event passes, your body starts to calm down, returning to equilibrium.
One of the challenges for human beings is that we can think ourselves into the stress response. An upcoming deadline is not a deadly threat. However, the stress response is primitive. If you are worried about the deadline, your body treats it as a threat, revving up for physical activity. Over time, frequent triggering of the stress response can lead to both physical and mental issues. People who are constantly stressed have increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
For cancer patients, there are many stressful events and reasons to worry. These patients will trigger the stress response frequently, which can make a difficult situation even worse. Cancer treatments are hard enough without dealing with secondary health issues or falling into depression.
Most human beings have wandering minds. One thought leads to another and another in a long chain. The human mind is constantly processing, judging and extrapolating. For cancer patients, many of the thoughts that are flitting about involve the future. They worry about the cost of treatment, the effects of their illness on loved ones and the possibility of the end of their lives.
Traditional forms of meditation seek to focus the mind on the present moment. In Zen Buddhist meditation, practitioners focus on their breath as a means to center themselves. They learn to observe their minds at work, eventually gaining some control over the natural restlessness.
Other forms of meditation use a word or phrase as the focal point. The word may have a religious connection, or it may simply be a positive thought of peace. When people who practice these types of meditation realize that their minds have wandered, they use the word to bring them back to the present moment.
One of the powerful lessons of meditation is that a thought is just a thought. For cancer patients, this realization means understanding that it is not helpful to worry about medical bills that do not exist or suffering that has not happened yet. Instead, mindfulness meditation helps the practitioner dwell in the present moment, dealing with what is happening here and now. This often allows patients to plan for the future without as much anxiety. They also grow in appreciation for the time they are currently spending with the people they love rather than worrying about the time they may lose.
It is important to understand that this kind of meditation is not simple escapism. Those engaging in the practice are not trying to deny what is happening. Instead, they are better able to deal with the present effects of cancer in a realistic way.
Meditation will not make unpleasant feelings disappear. However, many people who use meditation in conjunction with their treatments find they are better able to deal with pain and discomfort. In dealing with pain, most forms of meditation encourage people to pay attention to how they feel. Rather than tensing up in a way that exacerbates the pain, they learn to relax around the pain. Instead of using a broad statement like, “My leg hurts,” practitioners learn to be more precise, observing the size and location of the pain. This often makes the pain more manageable.
There are many forms of meditation that can be adapted to different situations. If a patient is going through chemotherapy treatment, he or she might sit and meditate through it. As patients deal with waves of pain or nausea, walking meditation can help get through each phase. Incorporating meditation can help patients endure the difficult times of treatment.
Yoga is part of a larger Indian practice of spirituality that incorporates breathing, energy, and motion. By focusing on the body in different traditional positions, a cancer patient can step away from feelings of discomfort and worry. Yoga is all about bringing the body, mind, and spirit into balance. This allows cancer patients to bring a sense of equanimity to difficult moments.
Many people deal with pain or discomfort by tensing the parts of their bodies that are troubled. The various yoga poses force the participants to stretch themselves, leading to more relaxed and flexible muscles and an improved ability to deal with pain and discomfort.
Fatigue is a common side effect of cancer treatments. Patients feel constantly tired and unable to function. One of the attractive things about yoga in conjunction with cancer treatments is the fact that it is a low impact exercise. Being still in a yoga pose puts enough strain on the body to get the heart pumping and cause deeper breathing. Patients who take part in an easy yoga session often leave feeling energized, positive and more like themselves.
Yoga is also an adaptable exercise. While advanced poses can take years to perfect, simple poses like the cow, cobra, child and downward-facing dog are easily accessible for beginners. Professional instructors can adapt many poses to help people who are experiencing mobility issues.
While you can learn some aspects of meditation and yoga through online videos or other self-help means, it is better to work with an experienced practitioner. They can help patients deal with the awkwardness of learning new skills and make suggestions for dealing with difficulties. In some places, there are yoga classes and meditation groups geared specifically for cancer patients and their families.
Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are not cures for cancer. However, these practices can be helpful tools in dealing with cancer treatments. By learning how to observe your mind and calm yourself, you can face your cancer treatment in a more peaceful and positive way.