Breathe In, Breathe Out, Be Grateful

By the time I returned to the surgeon for my second visit my cancer had gone from undetectable to a hard, golf ball sized lump. It was now five weeks since my first mammogram and I still hadn’t had any kind of medical treatment for my cancer. A friend warned me that the waiting was the hardest part. At the time, I thought she meant the delay between my call back to BreastScreen and waiting for my results. About now it occurred to me that waiting was going to be a regular challenge.

When you have cancer there’s always going to be challenges to your patience and your ability to stay positive. I was very grateful for the local Buddhist centre. We’d been to a couple of their talks about mindfulness and meditation. There’s a lot in Buddhist philosophy that’s very useful when you need to be patient. I find it interesting that so much of what’s being written by contemporary advocates for staying positive and being happy mirrors the things that Buddhism has been teaching for centuries. Be in the moment. Be grateful. Practice loving kindness and compassion towards all living things.

I’m not Buddhist. I have issues with reincarnation and the whole idea of karma, particularly when I hear that a pack of rapists will be punished in their future lives by being victims of rape. This philosophy, by extension, holds victims responsible for their own circumstances. If rapists become future victims that implies that today’s victims were rapists in a past life and therefore deserve what happens to them. I can understand how this type of thinking helps some people to cope with the hardship and cruelty they see in the world but I worry that it holds everyone personally responsible for whatever horrible thing happens to them. “It’s their karma.”

I’m also of the view that when we behave ethically, when we do things for others and when we minimise our impact on the planet we should do those things just because they are the right thing to do, and not because of some promise of future reward in this life or the next.

But I’m very grateful for the lessons in meditation.

The simplest meditation involves sitting comfortably, closing your eyes gently and focusing on your breath. Ideas will still appear in your mind but you treat them as leaves that have fallen on the surface of a river. You notice them and you let them float away. You return your attention to your breath. You notice that it feels cooler going in and warmer going out. The leaves fall. You let them float away. Your mind calms and the leaves become less frequent. When you do this regularly you get less leaves. Your mind becomes better at being still and peaceful.

If you want to try meditation there are lots of guided recordings available for free on the internet. Just google.

Meditation is another one of those ancient practices, like yoga, where science is finally starting to confirm what practitioners have claimed all along. People that meditate regularly have better physical and mental health than people that don’t. We are calmer, happier people. Importantly, for those of us with cancer, meditation is wonderful for countering anxiety, worry and fear.

I’ve loaded lots of yoga music and meditation recordings onto my iPod. I’ve bought a pair of those ear phones they make for people that want music while they run or lift weights or fight cancer. When I feel the panic rise or when I wake at 4.32am with my monkey mind I can slip into a guided meditation and drift back to sleep. It’s a wonderful device for shifting my thinking.

Like a lot of people I have difficulty being where I am. My mind is much better now at letting go of the past but not so great at waiting for the future. A cancer diagnosis was a gilt edged invitation to start speculating about all of the possible outcomes and all of the possible consequences. What if. When my mind does this I find it helpful to give myself a time limit. It’s a good way to face my fears without allowing them to eat my entire day. What I find interesting is that if I give myself fifteen minutes to focus on my fears and worries I usually can’t make it to the end of that time without repeating something.

Once I’ve given my worries their fifteen minutes I can counteract their spontaneous intrusions by saying to myself, “I’ve already thought about that today. I can think about it again during my fifteen minutes tomorrow. I don’t need to think about it now.” This technique has been very useful for dealing with all of the anxiety that naturally accompanies a cancer diagnosis.

Five weeks after my first mammogram with no medical treatment and I didn’t have any trouble getting to the end of the fifteen minutes. I worried about death and then reminded myself that we are all going to die and that many people my age die from stroke or heart attack or any one of the many things that kills us. “You could get hit by a bus.”  It was entirely possible that I could beat cancer only to get struck down by something else. I reminded myself that I was actually feeling well and healthy, I had been lucky enough to learn about my cancer early and I lived in a country with excellent health care and wonderful doctors. I could beat this. I was going to beat this. I had already beaten this!

When my mind tempted me to feel sorry for myself I remembered the old saying about having no shoes and then meeting someone that had no feet. There are worse things than being a middle aged woman in Australia with breast cancer. LIke being a young mum with breast cancer, or a person in a majority world country with breast cancer, or someone in the USA without health insurance and breast cancer, or someone with aggressive metastasised breast cancer, or someone with a genetic history of breast cancer whose only option is a double mastectomy (at the time of writing I’m still waiting to hear back about genetic testing so I could still be part of this group too).

When I shifted my thinking beyond breast cancer, which is easy to do when you’re in the waiting room of any medical testing facility, I reminded myself that in this country, breast cancer is a better option than just about any other type of cancer. The five year survival rate for all breast cancers is currently 86%. For triple negative breast cancers it’s 75%. On the statistics alone I have three chances in four of beating it. Compare that to pancreatic cancer with a survival rate of 2% and you can’t help being grateful.

I was grateful that the cancer was mine, and not my daughter’s or my husband’s or my mother’s cancer. I would rather be this side of the cancer and fighting it than watching anyone I love go through this, and I’m sorry to have put my friends and family in that position. Their love and support sustains me.

Step away from cancer and look at health conditions broadly or the life circumstances of people in most of the countries in the world and all you can do is realise how very lucky we are.

There’s always someone worse off. I find it helps to remember that. I know there’s always a possible future that includes cancer spreading and killing me. I choose not to believe that this is where I’m headed. I choose to be well and healthy and to beat this disease. I also choose to enjoy every single day for the rest of my life.

I promise to be grateful.

I promise that I will never complain about growing old. Never ever. For the rest of my life.

Growing old sure beats the alternative.

My surgeon recommended that instead of having my cancer surgically removed I have chemotherapy first. This made sense. Having chemo first meant they could monitor the effect of the drugs on the cancer, whereas having it post surgically meant they just had to assume it was working. It also meant that my whole body was being treated for any cancer cells, including any tiny growths that were undetectable. What appealed to me the most was that I’d be having chemotherapy when I was in the best possible health and that there was no risk of it being delayed because of surgical complications or low blood count.

Of course that meant cancelling my tentative surgery date and making an appointment to see an oncologist. More waiting.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Be grateful.


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