11. The Benefits of Mindfulness

I’m often reminded of the benefits of mindfulness while on the trail.  This last cycle, I’ve had two days that I’d describe as anxiety-filled, related to having my latest scan.  Let’s start with the good news first with the results -- most of my tumors have decreased in size, the rest are stable.  We continue to lengthen the runway!  Woohoo!!

My CT scan was scheduled two weeks sooner than anticipated because I’d been experiencing some weird intense breathlessness, in moments of not doing anything to warrant it.  My oncologist wanted to rule out a pulmonary embolism (gasp), which I’m now at a higher risk of after my DVT, or the nodules in my lungs having grown (double-gasp)… both scenarios not ideal.

The day before the scan, I woke up feeling heavy.  Not so unusual the day before a scan, but such a marked departure from how I’ve been feeling most days of late, and with an intensity that was obviously different.  Over the course of the day, I tried to shake it, but felt ungrounded and mentally scattered.  It’s interesting that in these moments we often try to push through, rather than giving ourselves a break.  I ran late for an appointment, I just could not get myself together.  Heading into it, I felt frustrated and a bit teary.  I know how to do this stuff… why was today so hard?

My appointment was for acupuncture, and I thank my lucky stars daily for the quality of those in my care team.  When I called to say I would be late, and was given the option to reschedule if I needed it.  I almost sobbed into the phone when I said, “I really need this!”  Thank you, intuition.

My acupuncturist’s nickname for me is “Superstar,” and I adore it.  It’s so incredibly empowering.  She has my back, and continually treats and coaches me through the ups and downs of this journey, just like the rest of Team Cass.  This was definitely a down day.  I described all of my thoughts and feelings around what was going on, and some of this informs where she puts her magic needles.

My acupuncturist asked if anyone had described the path of healing to me.  I asked what she meant.  She doodled a graph that showed that the expectations of most is that healing is a linear path, a diagonal line from lower left to upper right on the x and y axes.  In reality, it’s just not so.  It looks more like a stock market graph with upticks and downticks, with hopefully an overall gain.  In the terms of one CT scan, it could be a downtick, and not impactful in the overall picture.  Deep exhale.  The other fabulous nugget instilled during the appointment I mentioned in my post last week, that anxiety isn’t necessarily something to be overcome.  Sometimes you prevail by just getting through it.  And… breathlessness is a common side-effect of anemia, which is very common during chemotherapy treatment, and I was probably more hormonal during my period because of the blood thinners making it more intense.  She was thrilled that I was hormonal, because hormones and periods are really important for healing and sometimes uncommon during treatment.  Things aren’t always as they seem.  In that appointment, we both put me back together.  A little coaching on the front end, some treatment, and a break.

In my time laying on the table after the needles were placed and I was alone, I clasped my hands together on my belly and gave myself a stern talking to.  I reminded myself that we were in it together, and that no matter what happens, I am loved and able to love fiercely, and that the things that really matter to us have nothing to do with cancer, treatment or scans.  Further deep exhalations.  I allowed myself to cry, to be in the present moment and acknowledge those feelings of frustration and sadness… to release what I’d been holding on to so tightly.  That cancer and treatment is no picnic, that sometimes tenacity is exhausting.  In completely being with myself in the present moment, all of those feelings were okay to just “be,” exactly as they were.  No need to force, or change.  I had a little nap and woke up with an 180-degree personality adjustment.  I was back to my joyous self.  More deep exhalations.  

My second day of anxiousness was the day I received the scan results, the first day of treatment this week.  It’s a perfect example of the negative bias of the mind, where you hear ten things, nine are overwhelming positive, and you get stuck on the one thing that’s not.  This, in the context of an overall decrease of cancer in my body!  Dumb smart brain, stupid negativity bias.  What triggered it was when my oncologist said that he thought that I was coming to the end of the effectiveness of this treatment.  When I asked for further clarification, he said that the decreases in the tumors was at a slower rate that previous scans, meaning that over time, it’s becoming less effective against cancerous cells.  It’s exactly what we know about chemotherapy, that for most it’s not a cure.  As his focus is on ensuring the best quality of life for me, he wants to do two more cycles before giving me a break, while continuing with the immunotherapy that has been shown to keep things stable.  The gift of life without treatment for a while.  I know that there are lots of chemotherapies out there, lots of immunotherapies, targeted therapies, let alone all of the integrative stuff I’ve been learning about and implementing.  On the face of it, it’s overwhelmingly positive news, so why the sourpuss face, Cass?

Over the course of the day, I couldn’t shake the feeling of foreboding.  What I’ve come to know of myself during this process is that 99% of the time I think I can kick cancer.  1% of the time I think I’m crazy to think that I can kick cancer.  Looking at it objectively, I knew in my bones that this current mindset was an anomaly.  I told myself that I have ways to positive affect my treatment outcome.  All those things I know to be true about me, being on this particular trail, what my intuition tells me.  And yet, I still couldn’t shift the energy.  No amount of breathing or talking to myself changed it, and I’ve befriended fear and foreboding. I know that there is space for all of it.  So… you make room.  The rest of the afternoon after returning home from treatment, nothing changed.  At dinner, I ended up describing to Dave all that had gone on, to ask for his perspective.  As I’ve said numerous times, God love this man.  His pragmatism helps me to keep it real.  I know I’m on the right path, I know that these feelings are just a downtick on my emotional graph.  So what to do?  It was easiest to relax into it.  To eat dinner, snuggle on the lounge for a while despite the way I was feeling, to take a bath and cry a little more, and then to take some meds to help me sleep, which I so rarely do.  Sometimes, you just need to pull out the big guns and not do it all on your own.  A new day, and a new perspective.  And the next day, back to the 99% mindset.  Yes!!!

It might not be obvious from these situations what part mindfulness has played.  From my experience with it, I can stay that it has yielded a greater level of self-awareness, which creates the foundation for the rest of my life.  I can be in a situation and also look at it from the outside, the meta.  I’m better able to see and meet things as they are, without creating a story to describe the way I think things are -- to take the hamster off the wheel and give that poor little guy a snack and a nap.  The easiest way to describe it is that there is more room around my thoughts, I don’t hold onto things and am not constantly analyzing and judging like I used to.  I have a greater amount of space between an emotional trigger and my reaction to it. I know myself better, with a greater capacity to understand what I need, when.  To make choices from a place of groundedness and calm, not fear and anxiety.  Oh, the freedom that comes with this!

I wholeheartedly believe that all people are good at their core, despite any bad behavior.  I am more compassionate and empathetic.  My relationships are stronger, I am able to more authentically live my life.  And my greatest learning from my current situation: My ability to meet life’s unexpected challenges has grown exponentially.  It’s powerful to be able to say that I have the capacity to meet life in the way that I want to.  And if you’ve forgotten what my goal is: courage and grace, with a deep well of self-compassion when I fail in those two areas.  Given my diagnosis and how I’ve been dealing with it, I’m so proud of how I’ve been doing.

Another aspect that my mindfulness practice has revealed is the relationship I have between fatigue and sadness.  I have a pattern that when I’m dog-tired and my energy is low, I’m more likely to feel sad.  Cancer or not, this pattern has been a constant in my life.  And, it’s while I’m in this state that I’m more likely to think that I’m crazy to think I can kick cancer.  Interesting, no?  My practice has given me the space to make room for it, to allow it to be when it surfaces, and to know that is a pattern within myself that will pass given time and rest.  It’s pretty amazing to know even while in it that it isn’t permanent.  You can see the forest and the trees together.

I’ve just finished reading an interesting book called, “Dying to Be Me.”  It’s written by Anita Moorjani, who experienced a near death experience (NDE) while on her deathbed from stage four cancer and completely healed herself in the weeks afterwards.  It’s a fascinating read.  Our stories of diagnosis are quite similar, both of us having taken impeccable care of our bodies in the quest to defy cancer and failing miserably!  What Anita describes is an immense freedom having been on the other side, common for those who’ve experienced NDEs.  That her experience changed the way she felt about all humans, even those who commit heinous crimes.  What it gave her is a freedom from judgement for others, which naturally then also extended to the judgement she’d so vehemently held for herself.  And when she finds herself moving back into a judgmental mindset, it’s always mindfulness and a meditation practice that brings her back to her true self.  In the book, she takes about fatigue.  Her motto is, “Keep moving forward.  When you’re tired, rest.  When you’re not tired, keep moving forward.”  Simple.

Onward, all of us!