Learning to Be Here, Now

By: Carl Berkowitz, TCCC Volunteer

Pain and the associated mental suffering are a common occurrence for persons with breast cancer. Medications can often reduce the pain. But how can cancer patients reduce the suffering that comes from dwelling on unpleasant past experiences or downturns anticipated in the future?

Breast cancer survivor Gayle Wilde thinks she has an answer. “Meditation and mindfulness kept me in the here and now. It also helped me get past unanswerable questions like ‘why me?’ or ‘what did I do wrong?’”

Many years of practicing mindfulness meditation helped Gayle get through surgery, five months of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation therapy. These procedures left Gayle feeling exhausted and self-conscious. But her daily meditation practice kept her from defining herself as just her body or the negative thoughts that swamped her mind.

“I had to live in the present moment, appreciating each day as it came. I didn’t want to waste time and energy wallowing in self-pity or trying to second guess what tomorrow would be like. My meditation practice helped me do this.”

Her cancer story began in 2010 with a lumpectomy in her right breast. With no family history of cancer and the excised tumor having clean edges, Gayle was confident that this event would be a small, one-time upset in her life. And it was … for a while.

In 2014, another lump was found, this time in her left breast. And not only did it not have clean edges but seven out of 14 lymph nodes removed for biopsy tested positive for cancer. In consultation with her physicians, Gayle opted for a bilateral mastectomy to minimize the chance of any recurrence.

“But not breast reconstruction” she added. “That’s not for me.” Her meditation practice helped Gayle accept what was happening as well as developing self-compassion as a way to accept her fear and anger.

Gayle’s meditation practice was centered on training her mind to gently let go of thoughts as they arose, and to focus on some tangible aspect of the here and now, such as the breath. She notes that, “Keeping your mind focused on your breath sounds easy, but it takes practice. The irony is that the benefit comes from the work itself, of simply returning to your breath as your mind wanders during a meditation session. “

This skill had immediate benefits in dealing with her second cancer diagnosis. Like many other patients, Gayle was terrified when showing up for radiation therapy. But she was able to calm her nerves by focusing on her breath just as she did during her meditation sessions. She was also able to acknowledge that while the treatment was unpleasant it was, like everything else in life, impermanent and would soon go away. This state of mind let her slip into a more relaxed state during the many stressful moments she had during and after therapy.

One strategy Gayle does not advocate is keeping a stiff upper lip. “Cancer can be overwhelming and scary. But I never found it helpful to ignore these feelings.” What she does advocate, in addition to meditation, is creating a daily journal, reading or composing poetry to help understand and express one’s feelings, and doing mindful walking in any of the natural areas of the Tri-Cities. Gayle found that these activities all greatly reduced the suffering associated with her cancer.

Today, with treatment behind her, Gayle welcomes the chance to talk with other patients about ways to relieve stress and find meaning in their lives after cancer. Readers are invited to meet with Gayle at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center’s Mindfulness Sessions, held at noon on the last Thursday of every month.

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