Cancer: Listening for a Mindful Life

By Regina Huelsenbeck, PhD

I can remember that day. I was home from college for Thanksgiving break. I had picked up my best friend for lunch; we were going shopping, and then later, out for the evening. We had quite the day planned… Before CancerI just needed to stop by my pediatrician’s office for a quick checkup. I had a lump on the side of my neck; it had been there since spring of my freshman year. It was now fall of my sophomore year and it had gotten much larger, so I finally decided to tell someone. I didn’t think it was really anything. I was 19 years old and my world did not have the space for such notions. The doctor however, looked pretty worried, and sent us over to an ENT (ear, nose & throat) surgeon who immediately took a needle biopsy.

A few days later, we got the biopsy results. We had just gone to see the movie The Bodyguard (yes, Whitney Houston). I was riding in the back seat of our car, with that same friend when my mother got the call. She turned around from the front seat, phone to her ear, and announced, “Its Hodgkin’s, Regina”. … … “I have cancer?” It did not compute. The feeling I had is still so hard to describe. I wasn’t even in that car anymore. Cancer ShockI was physically sitting in the backseat looking out the window. But psychically, upon hearing those malignant words I had popped into another reality. I had left the world of the healthy-living-well people and was sinking down into what can only be described as an underworld.

Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. ~Susan Sontag

With sickness comes isolation, sometimes vivid dreams, visitations in fever induced states and reflection; it is indeed another world. However, the lights of illness have a unique way of illuminating forgotten energies and disconnected pieces. In this respect, illness can and often does become an opportunity for reconnection, an anamnesis.

Through my journey into that underworld, I wondered how and why I got cancer. I have come to believe not only that I became ill for many reasons but that I was the only one who could uncover those reasons. No one else was qualified. No one could really tell me how I contracted cancer, exactly what I did or why I had it… I had lymphoma, and “they” really didn’t know and still don’t know what causes it. No one can truly provide a linear causal reason.

And that’s not the point anyway. The point is not necessarily what caused it; the point is really where this line of questioning took me, what this exile from the land of the fast movers and healthy shakers did for me.

Obviously, the journey was not all roses and inspirational change. It was hard and lonely and painfully self-reflective. I was also pretty pissed off. I was angry about missing out on what I considered to be the life I was “supposed to be living”. I was sick and I was tired. I was worried about the boy who no longer wanted to date me because I had cancer. I was worried that I had no hair and I was worried about being different from all my peers.

mindfully cutting veggiesThe angry part of me was not concerned with macrobiotics, death, meditation, mindfully cutting vegetables (something my macrobiotic instructor insisted upon- it wasn’t enough to simply prepare the dang recipes, everything had to be done a certain way: which I now understand, but then, not so much) or larger existential questions. A larger part of me, however, woke up because of my cancer experience. This part of me had questions and was ready to explore! This part of me truly blossomed after treatments were over and remission set in. This part of me did wonder about the benefits of slowly, mindfully cutting vegetables.

I became extremely interested in illness and the mind-body connection. I attended a conference on healing sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences. My career and truly my life’s passion grew from the basic interconnected ideas discussed in this conference.  I was enlivened! I now had even more questions about the mind-body connection, healing and consciousness.

I returned to college and changed my major (fashion merchandising) to nutrition and minored in psychology. I found my true love studying the psyche and set out to become a clinical psychologist (FYI: a very long road). 745 years later, I completed my doctoral dissertation on the experience of living with cancer. I also penned a chapter for Newsweek journalist Jamie Reno’s book of lymphoma survivor tales: Hope Begins in the Dark. Much of this article was taken from that chapter. Today I work mindfully with others struggling to heal, understand and integrate the cancer experience. I am grateful for this work, the questions which continue to emerge and the answers that flow from the spirit of each client.

ListenSo the saying goes that a “gift” is contained within life’s tragic experiences.   Although if you’re in the midst of chemo and someone suggests that cancer is a gift, you may envision yourself punching them in the head (believe me I get it!) But maybe, just maybe, you might consider taking a walk on the inside, and beginning to listen for your message. Illness sometimes presents itself to offer a wake-up call for more conscious living, a new direction or a new perspective. Perhaps it’s simply an opportunity to slow down, but more likely, it has come for a reason. You are the only one who can uncover and then begin to live into those discoveries. Through the uncertainty of illness blooms a new order, a new understanding, a new consciousness, something is healed and perhaps a new enlivened path is revealed.

Take a Walk on the Inside:

1.      Regular Sitting Mindfulness Meditation practice (sign up for MBSR class here)

2.      Journaling: “Bones, Dying into Life” by Marion Woodman, “Writing for your Life” by Deana Metzger, “Rebirth” by Deborah Ludwig, or take course with Sharon Bray: “Writing through Cancer”. Next workshop begins Feb 28th (more information here)

3.      Yoga:  Stacy McCarthy The Soul of Yoga

4.      Mindful Psychotherapy (check out my web page here)

5.      Mindfully preparing food and cutting vegetables (I had to put that in for my macrobiotic teacher)

6.     cancer and mindfulness How to Book: Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery by Linda E. Carlson & Michael Speca.

Sources:

Myss, C.  (Speaker).  (1993).  Why people don’t heal. Institute of Noetic Sciences.  Boca Raton, FL.

Newman, M.  (1994).  Health as expanding consciousness.  New York, NY:  National League for Nursing Press.

Robbins, J.  (1998).  Reclaiming our health:  Exploding the medical myth and embracing the sources of true healing.  Tiburon, CA:  H J Kramer, Inc.

Sontag, S.  (1989).  Illness as metaphor and AIDS and its metaphors. New York, NY:  Picador U

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5 responses to “Cancer: Listening for a Mindful Life

  1. Qigong helped me beat four bouts of “terminal” bone lymphoma in the early nineties. It’s also helped me manage the pain–physical and emotional–wrought by the cancer in the years since. Qigong also is an excellent stress reducer; after consistent practice life’s “slings and arrows” bounce off one like pebbles plinking off a breastplate. Clear 15 years and still practicing every day!

    • Bob:
      Thank you so much for your reply. I agree with you and thank you for sharing your personal experience with Qigong. I believe a colleague of mine offers Qigong with the integrative oncology program with Pacific Oncology and Hematology (Dee-Dee Just).
      My favorite line of your comment was: “Qigong ….after consistent practice life’s “slings and arrows” bounce off one like pebbles plinking off a breastplate.” Rock on fellow survivor, rock on.
      Warmest regards,
      Regina

  2. What a beautiful account. Your words express clearly your willingness to accept cancer as your teacher.

    I’m reminded of the many physically healthy people with mental illness who find a similar path, learning that the worst possible thing they could have imagined is, in fact, their own door to joy.

    I smiled reading about this young woman learning to be present to chopping those vegetables. Who knew? My meditation teacher quotes an ancient master who said, in essence, that if you can eat mindfully for one moment, that is worth more than a gazillion hours on the cushion.

    Finally — I love it that you include all those resources and suggestions at the end of your article. We feel so adrift when a crisis comes to us, and having concrete things to do — meditate, read this, start chopping — is such an anchor and a roadmap.

  3. Very moved by your article on mindfulness and cancer therapy. I must be your age (Whitney wannabe)! Had breast cancer 1 1/2 years ago. Work as a physician at Mayo Clinic, never thought I would be sick. Now I have to explore all the same things you did about life. I write a lot about integrative nutrition and holistic medicine. http://www.VeeMD.wordpress.com. thanks for article.

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