Are you newly diagnosed? If so, I’m sorry to hear it, but I have some tools that will help you.
These science-backed approaches are quite powerful when practiced all together. They support your immune system and help you heal. Oncology treatment is very important, but it is something done to you. Healing is something you do for yourself. Let these practices be a framework for you to explore your own healing regimen.
1. Belly Breathing
Breathing is the bridge between the body and the mind. When anxiety is high, belly breathing is the first thing I recommend. Here’s how it goes: when you inhale, expand your belly. When you exhale, just relax your belly. If you’re really tense, exhale through your mouth.
Belly out as you inhale. Long, relaxed exhalations.
Never strain with your breath. Do this for as little as a 3 full breaths or as long as 5 minutes (or more).
This is an important tool because it takes your mind off the situation for a moment and calms your nervous system. You don’t need to breathe this way all the time. Just use this when you need to get grounded and calm.
How are you sleeping? Sleep is super important for healing. It’s like the secret sauce. It affects everything–mood, focus, mental clarity and your general sense of well-being.
But is your mind keeping you up? It might help to understand some brain science: when your mind is ruminating and trying to solve all your problems, it’s in an evaluative mode. Your mind is evaluating all of your problems and trying to find solutions. In this mode, you’re usually thinking about something in the future or the past. When you bring your attention to what’s happening in the present moment – like feeling sensations in your body or the movement of your breath–you’ve moved into the experiential mode of the brain. You become aware of sensory information that’s coming in at the present moment.
My favorite technique for getting to sleep is breath counting. To do this, come into the experiential mode by feeling the natural movement of your breath. Then begin counting your exhalations using your inner voice. With your first exhalation, silently say “one.” With your next exhalation, say “two.” Keep going, counting ten breath cycles. Then count another ten cycles, but this time count backwards, from ten to one. Repeat this over and over until you drift off.
Breath counting is also a good starter technique for meditation (see below).
If you’d prefer a guided experience try listening to this body scan.
Also, a few pre-bed practices can be helpful for downshifting your nervous system. It’s called a sleep hygiene and I’ve collected a few tips for that here.
3. Gentle Movement
I know, you probably don’t feel like moving, but trust me, a little movement will ease the side effects of treatment and make everything a little bit better. And if you don’t trust me, trust the research. Studies show that continuing to be physically active during and after treatment reduces fatigue (number one side effect), elevates mood and self esteem, and improves sleep and quality of life.
Circulation is the name of the game. You don’t need to do anything fancy. Just move your major joints (shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, wrists) and spine in all directions. You’ll know that you’re getting circulation when your breath rate increases. See if you can keep that going for 15-20 minutes. Try raising your arms over head as you inhale, lower them as you exhale. While sitting, draw a knee in toward your chest and circle your ankle. Then change legs. Standing or sitting, try leaning side-to-side with one arm overhead. Keep it all gentle and easy.
Walking is also a good option. Or try this chair yoga sequence.
Now might be a good time to try meditation as a way to manage those intrusive thoughts. You know, the ones that ramp up your anxiety! Meditation is simply being still and paying attention to what’s happening internally.
Some beginners find meditation very difficult because they’re not used to this kind of internal attention. What they notice is that the mind just seems like a wild beast, going off wherever it wants. So we use concentration practices to tame the beast and direct the mind toward calm awareness. Once achieved, that calm awareness can slow the heart rate, downshift the brain waves, reduce muscle tension, lower stress hormones, and for some, decrease blood pressure.
Use the same breath counting technique we used for sleep. Again, bring your awareness to your breath. Without changing its rhythm, notice all the different sensations of breathing. Begin silently counting your exhalations up to ten, then backwards, ten to one. Keep repeating this for as long as you like.
Give each breath your full attention. Notice the nuances in the sensations of breathing. Remember that you’re not changing your breath, just using it as an anchor for your awareness.
If you lose track and wander into thinking, know that this is totally normal–this is what everyone is dealing with in meditation! Without judgment, come back to feeling your breath and begin counting again.
Learning techniques to quiet your raucous mind is especially good if you’re dealing with anxious thoughts that repeat themselves over and over. With practice you’ll gain control over your thoughts rather than your thoughts controlling you. This is the gift of a quiet mind. When you can manage your thoughts and allow yourself to settle into each moment, you give yourself the gift of silence, which greatly increases your capacity for contentment and peace.
5. The Subtle Helpers
Here are a few subtle but helpful tips that revolve around your heart.
How’s your support team?
Do you have family supporting you? A posse, a tribe? Good. Let them care for you. Learn how to receive their care and love.
If you don’t have a team, don’t fret. Take a breath. Now consider widening your understanding of a support network. Do your neighbors ask about you? Let them help you. Are there support services you haven’t called on yet? They’re there for you. Learn how to ask for help even if you’re stubborn and have never asked for help before. Seriously, do it.
In Radical Remission, Kelly A. Turner, PhD, states that
receiving love and social support leads to significant increases in powerful healing hormones, such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. These hormones in turn boost the immune system by sending signals to decrease inflammation, increase blood and oxygen circulation, and increase the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, helper T cells, and natural killer cells. All these changes help your body find and remove cancer cells.
Do you practice self-compassion?
This is a tough life chapter. Give yourself some credit for dealing with this. Cancer is tough stuff and treatment is no picnic. Send yourself some loving kindness for what you’re going through! You’re doing the best you can. Say to yourself, “may I be well and happy,” or “may I be peaceful and content.” Find words that work for you, but make sure they’re all positive like “happy.” No negative words like “cancer” even if it’s “may I be cancer-free.” Keep it simple and positive and repeat it often. Notice what happens in your heart area.
Take your laughter more seriously!
Make it your mission to watch the top 100 funniest movies of all time. Why? Because laughter:
- reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin
- increases endorphins which can reduce pain
- strengthens your immune system
- reduces tension by relaxing your body
- increases blood flow and circulation (blood vessels expand when you laugh)
Laughter changes your mindset, shifting your perspective away from worry and fear, even if only for a little while. It connects you to others, thereby strengthening your relationships, easing your emotional load and promoting a sense of community. Test it out by watching this cat video!
Your journey will be your own. You will have a unique constellation of choices, investigations, intuitive leads, information, support and actions. There’s such a thing as post traumatic growth and this journey you’re on, while not what you asked for, may generate some positive growth you never expected.
Keep belly breathing and taking it one step at a time.