How Cancer Made Me More Mindful

I was the healthiest person I knew—until I got cancer.

This diagnosis came as a complete surprise. I was doing all the things I thought I should be doing to live a healthy lifestyle. I was dairy free, I hadn’t eaten red meat in over twenty years. I meditated thirty minutes a day, every day. (Admittedly I was somewhat manic about it, which probably defeated the point, but whatever!) I did yoga. And yes, I enjoyed a drink every now and then. Physically I felt normal.

But emotionally and spiritually, I was starved, looking to others and external validation to bring me happiness and fulfillment. I felt disconnected from my spirit, myself and others.

One day I hit my breaking point. As a stereotypical entrepreneur on the verge of burnout, I was stressed, sleep deprived, anxious, and desperate for a different way of living and some peace of mind. That desperation led me to my first meditation intensive, a seven-day retreat at The Chopra Center. It was a game changer where I learned that meditation is like exercise for our brain and bodies to help soothe our nervous system so we can be more responsive versus reactive in life. Because of the daily consistency, my brain and body experienced the tangible benefits of meditating pretty quickly.

In the first few weeks following the retreat, I was sleeping better, less reactive and more responsive in high demand situations, feeling more present and connected to myself and others and actually experiencing some true fulfillment and joy in my life.  If I skipped a day, I would feel off, so consistency was no longer a chore where I had to find the time, but rather daily nourishment my mind, body and spirit craved.

Little did I know, during that nine months my body, mind and spirit were integrating and preparing me for the ultimate challenge. Nine months into my daily practice, I first heard the word cancer. After an initial breakdown, as I saw the needle about to enter my left breast for a biopsy, I did the only thing I knew to do in that moment, focus on my breath – in, out, in out. I was suddenly flooded by an overwhelming sense of peace throughout my entire being. While I was aware that I was potentially experiencing a devastating moment in my life, there was no denying that felt sense of peace flowing through my body. It was within me, not outside of me. It was in that moment I realized, OH, this is why people meditate.  I wasn’t doing anything, it was my body showing up for me with exactly what I needed in that moment.

As a curious soul seeker for the majority of my life, I quickly realized that cancer wasn’t my crisis point, but a landing pad of experiences inviting me to integrate my mind, body and spirit. I embraced my diagnosis through a lens of love rather than as a battle to be fought – a perspective that would help me find peace in the present moment and heal from the inside out.

Due to the size and nature of my tumor (which was above average), my first course of action was a bilateral mastectomy. As a way to mentally and spiritually prepare, I continued with my daily meditation practice and visualization exercises around the actual surgery. I envisioned the surgery going smoothly, my surgical team listening to a playlist I prepared specifically for them, healing with ease, and letting myself rest and recover.

But as I awoke that first morning after my surgery, it was clear, my body was assuming the role of team captain, and my mind and spirit were along for the ride. The limits of my body are foreign to me. I’m forced to move slowly and use precision in every movement. My mind grows frustrated trying to push me back to my old ways of powering through, but my body continually invites me to rest, be patient, and take it slow.

In the heightened moments of emotional and physical discomfort, my meditation practice reminds me to focus on the physical sensation of the pain and emotion versus creating a story around it – heaviness on my chest with each breath, sharp poking where the drains are located, tender rawness at the incision sight, the warmth of tears as they stream down my face, constriction in my throat when I feel frustrated. I breath through each sensation. In and out. In and out.

Each breath, coupled with mindful awareness, infiltrates my nervous system, naturally calming and relaxing me, bringing me back to the present moment and inviting true healing to take places. It’s a place of embodiment where my spirit can naturally settle in.

As I begin a six month course of chemotherapy, my meditation practice continues be my homebase as so much feels outside of my control. I once again I use visualization to help see the chemo as a loving and friendly energy helping to heal my body versus a poison waging war.  I do acupuncture to help manage the side effects of the chemo and boost my immune system from the inside. I tap into pilates and yoga as a way to befriend my body. My body tries to pick up exactly where it left off before cancer, but I don’t have sensation under my arm on the left side of my body and I become winded quickly. While it feels good to be moving, even the most basic exercises soon get the best of me. I feel like a baby, getting to know the subtle and deep movements for the first time. I feel grateful to be connecting with my body in this way and continue to hear its message to be patient and kind to myself.

When the reconstruction phase of my journey begins, I’m reminded that my body holds my stories and am humbled by everything we have been through. Once again, it is through my daily meditation practice and mindful awareness that I am able to invite a level of transmutation where deep healing can take hold and I’m able to witness my spirit merging with my physicality. I feel myself becoming a more fully embodied version of myself and feel connected to my truth, light and love that naturally comes shining through. It’s ironic that it took literally being stripped of so much (ie. boobs, hair, roles, expectations, etc) to discover this.

One of the things I heard throughout my journey was how positive I was being. I was always surprised by this, because I was very aware of the hardship. I realized what people were witnessing wasn’t positivity, but presence. It’s this present moment awareness that lies at the core of any mindfulness, meditation or other mind-body practice and ultimately what helped to strengthen the mindful lens from which I was living my cancer journey.

Has cancer been the most difficult experience of my life? Absolutely. But it also has been the most meaningful and transformational time of my life. While technically not that much has changed in terms of my lifestyle since before my diagnosis, the mindfulness and intention behind everything has shifted completely where my mind, body and spirit are integrated and working together. I now eat healthy foods to nourish my body and cells. I practice yoga and pilates to strengthen my body and for the sense of community. I meditate because it helps me tap into the essence of my soul and soothes my nervous system.

These practices are now integral to my way of living and a reminder that self-care isn’t simply an indulgence to occasionally tap into, but a fierce daily practice of honoring our bodies, minds and spirits that is paramount to living a life with more compassion, connection, resilience, generosity and joy.

Paige Davis is a mindfulness and meditation teacher and breast cancer survivor. This essay is based on an excerpt from her book Here We Grow: Mindfulness Through Cancer and Beyond  (She Writes Press). Follow Paige at hellopaigedavis and on Instagram @hellopaigedavis.

 


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