It is possible to feel better at the end of breast cancer treatment than you did at the beginning.
That is the message I want you to understand. You can be healthier after cancer than you were before you got diagnosed when you learn more about nutrition and implement lifestyle changes. You can be more compassionate and caring of others after you’ve gone through cancer. And you can feel better about yourself when you’ve learned to use the 3 pillar tools of energy, empowerment, and grace.
Maybe your new functional medicine practitioner will test your nutrients and discover an imbalance in your vitamin or mineral levels. With the addition of the correct supplement in the correct dosage, you could be free of or improving from a condition that has always bothered you. Maybe starting a meditation practice to deal with the stress of cancer will open the floodgates of your creativity, and you’ll find an expressive outlet that brings you great joy. Maybe you’ll change the way you eat, both to help you through the treatments and to prevent any recurrence of cancer, and you will lose unwanted weight, your cholesterol will go down, and you’ll have less joint pain. Maybe you will become so aware of toxins in the environment as a contributing factor to cancer that you will become a green advocate in your community. Or you will be so impressed with the results of acupuncture that you consider a change in careers. The possibility for life-improving benefits is endless.
Often, when you are able to look back on your experience with breast cancer, you will see how that process transformed your life. For example, Hollywood star Shannen Doherty said “I’m feeling ridiculously lucky and very blessed. Cancer has changed my life for the better. It’s made me a better human being. It stripped away all of the walls and the barriers. … It’s this amazing thing where you look at people and realize their worth and what good hearts they have because they’re not running. That’s what cancer does. It strips everything where everyone, including you, is laid bare.”
That’s what I mean by breast cancer as a spiritual path. Spirituality emphasizes inner experiences of personal growth that reflect your deepest values and your purpose in life. Your priorities change. It’s a search for meaning that is independent of any traditional religious beliefs. There are many of us who consider ourselves “spiritual but not religious.”
Spiritual practice is whatever moves you along your individual journey towards awareness of your own self, the discovery of higher truths, and a liberated consciousness. These practices include ways to purify the body of disease and toxins; ways to transform negative emotions into positive affirmations; and ways (such as meditation) to get beyond the thinking mind and connect to intuition, diminish ego-centric thoughts and behaviors, and bring more love and compassion into yourself and out into the world.
Those who have been through cancer are termed “survivors,” just like people who have been through earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. The ground beneath you shifts. Chaos blows through your everyday existence. You are swamped with cascading emotions. Cancer disrupts your life and the lives of those around you. Schedules have to change, workloads have to shift, and a thousand other adjustments have to be made to accommodate the shake-up of cancer.
But when you learn a bit about seeing everything in your life through the clear window of mindfulness, the storm will pass, the rough seas will calm down. You’ll be able to get a grip on yourself, and instead of fighting a war against cancer or feeling like a victim, you will be able to befriend it and note how it is moving your life in a positive direction.
You can transform your outlook on every level: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. An important place to start is with work on your emotions.
Your path began at that awful moment when the doctor said the words: “You’ve got cancer.” You immediately felt as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. Your life turned upside down and, in a split second, many dire thoughts raced through your mind:
How will I tell my family?
What impact will this have on them?
How will I manage to take care of everyone?
Will I be able to work?
What will the treatments do to my body?
How will I handle losing my hair, or the changes from surgery?
Am I going to go through a lot of pain and suffering?
It’s absolutely overwhelming and terrifying.
You may be angry, asking “Why me?” Or you may go into shock, denial, or self-blame. You may try to negotiate with the universe, hoping you are able to will away the cancer if you think a certain way or behave in a specific manner.
In truth, there is no right or wrong way to react when you are first diagnosed with breast cancer, but it is vitally important to honor your emotions. However, the trick is not to get stuck in an emotional pit or in repetitive negative thinking. Think of it as a spiritual challenge: how to move from negative emotions to a more positive mindset, not by burying or denying your emotions, but by allowing them to be and watching them dissipate.
Picture a river, flowing smoothly through the countryside, with beautiful plants growing along its banks. This is like a healthy body when the Qi, or energy, is flowing smoothly. When a “storm” occurs, debris clogs the river. Upsetting emotions or trauma; toxins in the environment; unhealthy food intake; long-term stress—all create the debris that can clog the river. The water is no longer able to flow unimpeded, pockets form, the water turns to mud.
This is a perfect analogy of how a tumor is formed. You want to take action to create movement so you can reestablish the smooth flow of your body’s energy river.
One of the biggest transformative factors is the development of your “emotional intelligence.” A simple definition is that emotional intelligence is the ability to identify your emotions, assess them, and then take control of them. It’s a way to recognize and understand what you are thinking and feeling, and how you act as a result.
Have you paid attention to your emotional process since you received the diagnosis? Have you railed against your genes? Against God? Are you angry at the toxins in the environment? Have you blamed yourself? Do you find yourself feeling hopeless?
Remember the emotional tsunami you went through in those first few days after diagnosis? Traumatic events activate the fear center of the brain, called the amygdala. If you can label the experience and attach language to the emotions you are feeling, it gives you a way to incorporate the trauma into your life rather than trying to deny or bury it.
Many people have difficulty in describing or naming their emotions. Can you answer the question: What are you feeling right now?
To help you, here is one list of emotions:
Say you are fearful of what a diagnostic test will show, so you keep putting off making an appointment. When you see clearly what you are doing, you can break through the emotions that are dictating your behavior and now you can manage the situation. Emotional intelligence utilizes both the mind and the heart, working together to make you a more aware and compassionate person—the very definition of spiritual self-growth.
Once you have identified the emotions you are feeling, and thought deeply about why those particular emotions have arisen, what can you do about them?
You have been so busy in your life. You juggled work and home, partner and kids, parents and co-workers. You had places to go and things to do. Meals to cook, laundry to fold, carpools to arrange. You multi-tasked and did the best you could, but it was always stressful. Now you have to stop and gather in all the strands of your scattered attention. Bring it all back in to you—to your care, to your health, to your life.
Who knows what you’ll be able to see about yourself and your life when you take a step back from your business and your busy-ness?
Think of the fact that as of September 2017, the average American spends 721 minutes per day (that’s 12 hours!) with media—the top 4 being: TV, mobile devices, online laptops and desktops, and radio. Are you always in front of a screen, or listening to the radio? (The number of hours was calculated with multitasking in mind; if you spend an hour watching TV while surfing the web on your smart phone, that counts as 2 hours of media time.)
Dan Goleman, who wrote the book Emotional Intelligence, said: “It used to be you left work and went home. Now you’ve got your devices that follow you everywhere. The body is designed to be energetic and active and then recover. People don’t have any recovery time—there’s been this silent, invisible ratcheting up of invasion of our space.”
Well, now you have to make time to recover. And you can emerge stronger, more focused, and with new perspective on the future. The boys in the cave
One of the best ways to get through a stressful time in your life is by learning the spiritual practice of meditation. We recently witnessed an extraordinary example of this. In June/July of 2018, the world was fixated on the plight of a dozen young boys in Thailand who were trapped by flood waters in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave network with their 25-year-old assistant soccer coach. It was always dark. They had no food. They had to lick dripping stalactites for water. The youngest was only 11 years old; the oldest was 16. Needless to say, they were scared.
As we all learned after their miraculous rescue, “Ake,” the coach, had spent time in a Buddhist monastery as a novice monk after his parents and brother died. He taught the boys meditation techniques that helped them to stay calm and conserve energy so they’d use as little air as possible during the two weeks they were trapped in the cave.
Some weeks later, all but one of the boys (who is a Christian) had their heads shaved in a ceremony to ordain them as novices (Ake was ordained a monk), and they were to spend nine days living in a monastery—a tradition for males in Thailand who experience adversity. It’s considered a “spiritual cleansing” for the group, and a way to fulfill a promise to remember the ex-Thai navy seal diver that died during the rescue operation.
As one of the boys’ grandfathers said: “It’s like they died but now have been reborn.”
Besides being a very efficient way to get through a stressful situation, there are also biological effects of mindfulness practice.
Linda Carlson is the co-author (with Michael Speca) of the 2011 patient manual called Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery. She described it this way: “…we do know that mindfulness practice down-regulates sympathetic nervous system activity and up-regulates the vagal nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the relaxation response. And we know that this is tied into the immune system, so it also results in less inflammation and less of the psychological symptoms associated with inflammation.”
For at least the last 20 years, mindfulness-based interventions for cancer care have been developed and evaluated. In 2016, a Duke University study showed how meditation can have a positive influence on pain, fatigue, and anxiety during a breast cancer biopsy. A 2014 Canadian study from the University of Calgary and Alberta health services showed meditation powerfully complements treatment plans to alter cellular activity in breast cancer survivors—one of the studies that show the reality of the mind-body connection.
There are certain common experiences that are related to diagnosis, treatment, and surviving cancer: loss of control, confusion about what to do, fears of recurrence, uncertainty about what will happen in the future, and symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, tremendous fatigue, and depression. All have been shown to improve through mindfulness practices.
Mindfulness brings you into the NOW. And here, in the Now, you are in charge of your healing team and can evaluate and “feel into” what is best for you. You have enough clarity to make skillful choices. You can choose to keep your focus on a positive outcome. Choice is the key to your empowerment, and to your progress along the spiritual path of breast cancer.
 “Mindfulness: The New Science of Health and Happiness,” by the Editors of TIME, TIME Special Edition.