Written by Jennifer Van Dusen
From her Young and Breastless Blog
May 20, 2017
[mahynd-fuh l-nis] /ˈmaɪnd fəl nɪs /
1. the state or quality of being mindful or aware of something.
2. Psychology. a. a technique in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them: The practice of mindfulness can reduce stress and physical pain.
b. the mental state maintained by the use of this technique.
I am participating in an 8 week workshop to help with the chronic & neuropathic pain I have as a result from my breast cancer and its treatment. Typing that last sentence I realized that I should clarify something; the cancer was not painful, the cure was. Now I can say that my breast cancer itself was not painful. I had no tenderness in my breast, didn’t feel lumps and the tumors had not metastasized to my bones (which I have heard is very painful). Cancer did not hurt, the cure did. I truly believe there will never be a cure for cancer, what I wish the goal was is to make the treatment of cancer more bearable, eliminate the long term effects of treatment, make the treatments better so that you don’t have to go the hospital for chemo every day/week/month for hours, nuke it so that it goes away without burning/blistering/destroying tissue. Allow people to live while trying to live.
While I was in active treatment I found it much simpler to be mindful. I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time I was going to the Cancer Center every day but that’s what I was doing. I was fully present in the moment, I relaxed in the nuker – my name for the machine that shot the radiation into my body – and could picture the rays killing the rogue cells in my body. I was totally aware of my skin and the feel of the lotion I applied 6 times a day. Maybe it was easier to be mindful because this was active treatment. I had a job to do – get better.
Now I try to ignore my body as much as possible. I like to look at my right breast, touch it and when I am I can pretend there is another one right next to it. I should be doing the reverse. I want to be more comfortable with the dent left on my left chest. I have accepted it is hopefully temporary, that with intensive physiotherapy to loosen the scar tissue and thin skin left that my plastic surgeon will be able to slip a very small silicone implant in there. But I can’t seem to stop being sad and angry at the shape I’ve been left in.
Mindfulness is a practice and that’s where I need to start. For years my therapists have always told me I am my biggest critic. I have absolutely no competitive nature for sports or group activities but as far as competing with myself, I always want to win, be the best, do it properly. So for me I want to jump right in and become this super Zen – wise – calm person and considering I’m the exact opposite of this I’m struggling. I guess that’s why it’s called a practice. You have to work at it, learn to do it and most importantly be patient with yourself. Practice makes perfect after all.
It’s strange to me how relaxing and focusing your awareness on the exact moment you are in and realizing how your body actually feels can help with pain. I have spent so much of my waking time over the last year thinking about anything but how my body feels. I haven’t taken the time to check-in with myself because I’ve thought if I do all I will feel is the pain or fatigue. I’m skeptical but excited to see how mindfulness will change my perspective on my body and my surroundings. At the very least I am sure it will help with my anxiety.
Part of this workshop also requires that I take time every day to practice meditation. I have found that taking the time out of my day to listen to the meditation difficult. It’s ok when I’m home alone, or going to the Foundation for the course but when people are around I want to be with them. I want to be interacting and present when my husband, my niece and my friends are around. Having cancer has made me feel very different and alone within myself but I has also made me appreciate every activity, every person and every day that I have.
I don’t know how successful I will be as a participant in this workshop. I hope that the people running it will be able to learn something about how those of us who have had our bodies a little broken from treatment are able to use the same body to help them heal. I’m ok if this doesn’t help me, but I really want to be able to help others. This must be one of the reasons I have survived. I also take a moment almost every day to think of the women who had the same disease and didn’t. Something was learned from them whether I met them or not. Doctors know more now than they did years ago from these women, programs have been developed and communities have been formed.
For now trying to calm down and focus has had the exact opposite effect on me. Maybe it’s because I need more time – I am only one week into the 8 week workshop – or maybe it’s just in my nature to find a different coping mechanism. All the same I will try to focus on the mantra be gentle with yourself.
*for those of you who are interested in the workshop I have attached this weeks practice, a 25 minute body scan. Click here for the link.
Jennifer Van Dusen is a 30-something breast cancer champion who loves her husband, fur-kids, shopping, reading, and public speaking. Having cancer has taught her to live each day to the fullest, to appreciate the moment, and do what she can to help others and her community. Please check out her Young and Breastless blog.