What I learned when I took a class for cancer patients on mindfulness

Olivia Silver is a writer and a PR professional. She also has breast cancer. Last May, she was diagnosed with the disease, and soon after, she started writing about it. In this column, Olivia examines the everyday aspects of life while being treated for breast cancer as a 30-something. 

On my quest to simplify my life while dealing with breast cancer, I decided to try something new.

I signed up for a study that taught cancer patients under age 40 mindfulness and meditation. This weekly class lasted several months and taught me various techniques like the art of breathing to calm my nerves; the use of a variety of meditation practices; and the practice of yoga as a form of meditation. Most importantly, it taught me to take moments for myself — moments that do not include the TV, my laptop and my iPhone.

Prior to getting cancer, and really my entire life, I’ve been a Type-A person. I remember a grade school teacher telling my mother that she’s putting too much pressure on me to get good grades and my mom explaining to the teacher that that was of my own doing. I’m always pushing myself and striving for the next goal or challenge. When you tell this type of person that they need to concentrate on the present and clear their minds — you give him or her quite the challenge.

But I really tried to commit to the lessons, practice each technique and do my homework — recording my experiences in a journal that I turned in each week. Am I good at it? No. Do I see the benefit to it? Definitely.

What I liked best about the experience, though, was the camaraderie that existed amongst the other members of the class. I was the only one who didn’t have my hair because others faced different stages of cancer. But certain topics would come up that made me feel less alone — discussions on surgery, hair regrowth and infertility were common topics that do not come up the same way when talking to friends and family.

During one class, one woman mentioned celebrating her birthday the night before and we congratulated her in a different way, truly appreciating the milestone as an accomplishment rather than a passage of another year.

I’ve resisted going to support groups right now because I want to remain ignorantly bliss for a little longer. I want to hold onto the hope that I will conquer cancer and this will not come back. I fear that support groups would open my eyes up to future problems that I’m not ready to accept. There is no right time to join a support group. I believe it is an individual choice. But I do see the benefit of being around people going through something similar. I often sat in class and felt like I was in the support group depicted in The Fault in Our Stars. (The teacher didn’t play the guitar, but we did share how we felt each day.)

I sometimes didn’t want to go to class, but now that those classes have ended I miss being around all the people. I knew very little about their lives beyond the little pieces that they shared. But I keep thinking about them and wondering where they’ll be a year from now.

There was another takeaway I got from the class: It opened my eyes up to how much time I spend watching TV and playing with my phone. I don’t experience enough silence to really be present with my thoughts. I can see why people say that meditation allows some innovators to come up with new ideas. Your attention is more focused and you’re less distracted. I also realized how much I like yoga and how important that can be for not only physical fitness, but also for stress reduction.

There was this one lesson that the teacher would stress: If you are sitting or lying down in an uncomfortable position then move to a more comfortable spot regardless of where you are at in the meditation training. Why be uncomfortable and not enjoy what you’re doing? That seems like common sense. But how often do we physically or metaphorically stay in a situation that makes us unhappy or uncomfortable and not adjust to feel better? I thought that was brilliant—and an idea I’ll put into practice through this journey to health and beyond.

Read more about Olivia’s journey here.

(Image via 20th Century Fox)

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