Cancer Patience: A Meditation on Waiting


The smorgasbord of waiting that is laid out before you when diagnosed with cancer would be farcical if it were not so physically, psychologically and emotionally draining.

"They also serve who only stand and wait." - John Milton

If you're a cancer survivor, like me, you've probably spent a good portion of your time waiting. I don’t mean waiting for the bus, waiting for the rain to stop or waiting for something good to turn up on Pay-Per-View. The kind of waiting I’m talking about is the gut wrenching, soul squeezing, the-doctor-will-be-with-you-in-a-minute waiting that anyone with a serious illness knows all too well.

This isn’t a rant about the medical profession and its apparent twisted sense of time. I want to talk about the psychological nature of waiting itself. The word 'waiting' actually means “to watch over” or simply “watch.” This seems relatively harmless and even somewhat quaint, as in, “I think I’ll watch to see if those clouds are ever going away.”

The problem, of course, comes from the time-addicted mind and its need to keep things moving. Waiting is to the mind what being stranded on the beach is to a fish; a mind thrown into idleness flaps around grasping for something to worry about.

The smorgasbord of waiting that is laid out before you when diagnosed with cancer would be farcical if it were not so physically, psychologically and emotionally draining. Six weeks passed from the time of my diagnosis to the time of surgery. There was the waiting for procedures to done, test results to return, drugs to wear off, drugs to kick in, phone calls to be returned, hair to fall out, hair to grow back, etc. If it was a competition, cancers survivors would continually grab the gold medal in waiting.

One method of dealing with the sense that time is standing still is the time-honored tradition of complaining — also known as being an impatient patient. While losing one’s cool seems like a good idea, it seldom has the desired effect. The inner tension that builds is simply one more form of stress that the body has to confront. The externalization of that stress on some poor soul (who has seen one too many meltdowns) simply earns one the extra notation, “Mr. Verano is not handling his recovery very well.” Believe me; no one waits longer than the one tagged with the asterisk, “Needs to practice being more patient.”The fact that word 'patient' applies to both our role as a receiver of medical services and how we are asked to be while waiting is a sublime irony. The word patience derives from Latin, patientem, meaning, "bearing, supporting, suffering, enduring, permitting.”

As a result, to be patiently waiting is to watch our suffering. No wonder we don’t want to get good at it. Fortunately, the observing of the human condition is the very core of meditative practices and opens the door to the transformation of these otherwise exhaustive experiences.

My wife and I chose this meditative path when it came to downtime. Now, don’t imagine some New Age couple sitting in lotus position in the oncology office chanting, “om.” Instead, we returned to waiting’s origin and simply watched. We watched our breathing, our thoughts and the ebb and flow of inner energies. In this way, our waiting became our practice; an invitation to meet ourselves in the present moment. In those 'now' moments, a sense of calm replaced nervous nail biting and the awareness of breath became the awareness of life.

Research has demonstrated the powerful benefits of meditation and mindful attention to the present moment on health and wellness. The essential element is to develop opportunities for stillness. Why not transmute the lead of anxious waiting into the gold of a meditative moment? Why not make the practice of patience one of the silver linings of around the dark cloud of our cancer experience?

The best news of all about dropping in on the present moment is that it’s always now, which means (you guessed it): No waiting. Here are some tips for becoming what — in Zen circles — is known as the “silent witness”:

  1. Tune out the noises around you and tune into your breath. Don’t judge it, just watch and see if you notice where in the body you experience it the most.
  2. Give an overly active mind a mantra to silently say over and over. This can be anything meaningful to you, or a simple distraction, e.g. “Watching not waiting, watching not waiting.”
  3. Use a calming scent. Your sense of smell can trigger the relaxation response at a deeper level than most of the other senses. Some helpful scents include lavender, frankincense and sandalwood. But hey, if the smell of fresh baked bread does it for you, go for it.
  4. Give your hands something to do. The deep connection between the body and the mind means that we can influence our mental state through body movement. Worry beads, rosaries, stress balls and even tapping fingers in sequence are good ways to send “calm down” signals to the brain.
  5. Forget trying to stop thinking, this only creates further tension. When the thoughts return, watch them and then return to the breath. Repeat as often as needed.
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Dr. Kelly Stratton
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