Can we Overthink Our Cancer?


This cancer survivor learned how mindfulness can change the way we heal.

The word "mindfulness" conjures up all kinds of ideas, from the macabre to the magical, since it has long been associated with some altered state of being. Actually, it is quite the opposite.

Mindfulness is simply the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring right this instant—in the present moment. It’s our actual state of being, as opposed to what we wish our lives to be, or in the case of cancer, not to be.

Most often, we develop the ability to utilize this remarkable tool through meditation or some other form of training. But you can discover it now. And you can practice it anywhere.

During my year-long residency at the Palolo Zen Center in Hawaii, I learned the value of mindful living. It was there that I became aware of the way our thoughts tend to lead us astray, forming ideas and opinions, assumptions and beliefs, that very often create unnecessary angst in our lives. It was there, too, where I was diagnosed with male breast cancer.

I had many thoughts about that. This is not to imply that thinking is not a good thing. It is, after all, what we do. But when we learn to observe those thoughts that inundate us hour after hour, creating fear or anxiety that is of our own making, we have a good opportunity to focus on those things that truly matter. Better yet, we learn to recognize those experiences that are real, as opposed to seeing the stories we write about them.

And who among us is not guilty of negative or destructive or fearful thoughts?

"I’ll never find a parking place on a Saturday."

"I’m going to make a fool of myself."

"This cancer is probably going to metastasize to my liver."

"The holiday season is really going to stress me out."

The fact is, there is absolutely zero evidence that any one of those statements is true, and mostly because they haven’t occurred yet!

Byron Katie is an American speaker and author who teaches a method of self-inquiry that asks four simple questions to guide us in realizing how our beliefs can mislead us.

If you are curious to understand how mindfulness can be developed, you might want to experiment by actively noticing five new things about a close friend or someone you know well. As fresh information becomes available, that person is very likely going to appear to us in some new ways that we might not have seen before.

By understanding that we don’t fully know something despite all of the mental signals that say we do, we discover the power of uncertainty. Alternative viewpoints suddenly become available to us. Firm or rigid beliefs lose their footing, along with the fear, anxiety and the stress that went with them.

And just noticing new things puts us in the present. This is mindful living. As cancer survivors, we certainly don’t need any extra tension in our lives — especially the unnecessary kind.

Ellen J. Langer is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of several books on mindfulness, most recently The Art of Noticing.

She writes, "Over 40 years of studying mindfulness, I have found wide-ranging benefits to all this. Mindfulness can improve competence, relationships, happiness, even health and longevity.”

She goes on to say, "Mindfulness is literally and figuratively enlivening. If that weren’t enough, mindfulness is readily available to anyone willing to give up the illusion of knowing.”

And that, I think, is the key to dealing with cancer. So much of the distress we might feel is based on "not knowing.” As a result, we create with these marvelous brains we possess.

Cancer can be a scary business. Anytime we can pull ourselves back into what is happening right here and right now, we are able to take a breath, remember that there is always an opportunity to be healed and give ourselves one less thing to be worried about — until and unless that thing actually appears.

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