The Meaning of Mindfulness During Cancer


When mindfulness was first recommended when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, I scoffed. But now, years later, I know how important a tool it can be.

I was diagnosed with stage 3C breast cancer in 2004 at age 34, before mindfulness had become a buzzword.When my oncology social worker suggested mindfulness meditation, I scoffed. I made it only five minutes into the old cassette tape she had given me before abandoning the effort.

Even prior to my diagnosis, I could barely sit still, and my mind was always racing. With my anxiety sky-high as I faced the prospect of leaving my husband alone to raise our infant and toddler, there was no way I could be calm or still. How could I possibly “empty” my mind? 

Fast forward to 2023. I'm now a clinical social worker in private practice, approaching the 19th anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, with kids off at college. I encourage my clients — cancer survivors and others — to incorporate mindfulness in their daily lives. As I now know, being mindful is not about emptying your mind, and doesn't have to be part of a formal meditation practice. It's about being fully awareand trying to be non-judgmentalof what your mind and body are experiencing.

As I learned about mindfulness in graduate school and training courses, I realized that it was during my cancer treatment that I had first practiced mindfulness without even knowing it. It was late spring 2005, and I was sitting on our deck, feeling grateful to have made it through my last chemo treatment but frustrated with lingering nausea and worried about recurrence. As a cool breeze started on that sunny afternoon, I was suddenly fully aware of the air brushing across my cheek.I tuned in to the sensation of the warm sun and cool breeze on my skin, to the sound of rustling leaves and my kids laughing.

While the nausea and fear didn't disappear, the attention I gave them shrunk; nausea was one sensation among many, worry was joined by delight and gratitude. I could choose to focus on the more pleasurable experiences I was having, which helped the distressing ones feel less overwhelming.

While I wish I had grasped mindfulness before my cancer diagnosis, I'm grateful that my visceral experience that spring day taught me how much it can help.

This post was written and submitted by Melissa Pantel-Ku. The article reflects the views of Melissa Pantel-Ku and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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