Dealing with Cancer: Meditation and Massage
“When I was having chemo, I used to imagine the warrior chemo drugs doing battle with the cancer cells, and gradually pushing them out of my breast. Week by week, the chemo gained ground, and gradually destroyed all the cancer cells.”
Beth is a friend of mine, a 4-year survivor of inflammatory breast cancer. Diagnosed at age 37, doctors told her she had a 50/50 chance of survival. Unmarried, far from home, with a new job in an unfamiliar part of the country – Beth faced cancer on her own, emotionally; and beat it.
And in the process, she unknowingly turned to a well-known complementary cancer treatment: the Simonton method, a type of guided imagery and visualization in which cancer patients imagine their bodies fighting a battle with cancer cells, and winning.
Guided imagery. Visualization. Both are part of a broad field of cancer treatment called complementary medicine , which goes beyond traditional science (surgery, drugs, radiation) to tap into what researchers call “the mind-body connection.”
Endorsed by the National Institutes of Health, complementary medicine doesn’t replace traditional scientific research-based treatment; it enhances it, by reducing stress levels and making your body more receptive to healing.
After all, it’s not just our physical bodies that suffer from cancer; we’re heartsick, worried, afraid of dying. We’re anxious and stressed. “When will my hair fall out? Will chemo make me sick?” It’s been proven that these negative emotions increase the blood level of cortisol, a “stress hormone” that raises our blood pressure and blood sugar, and suppresses our immune system.
Bottom line: stress affects your body’s ability to deal with sickness, and slows down the healing process. So if you could alleviate the mental and emotional pain of cancer, you should heal more quickly and effectively.
But as we fully realize, anxiety is very had to control. Our minds seem to naturally dwell on the very worst that could happen. Chemo is going to ravage me. Radiation is going to give me lung cancer. I’m going to die.
What we need to do is actively place our minds on a different, more positive path. We need to mentally and emotionally “go” to a place that’s serene, peaceful, and healing. Because if we have peace in our hearts and serenity in our minds, cortisol levels drop, stress lessens, and the body heals.
Meditation is a process that allows you to clear your mind of all your worries by concentrating on something else – a word, an image, or a reading. It’s a practice that’s been used for thousands of years in cultures around the world.
I meditate every morning, listening to a 20-minute reading via CD, before I get out of bed. It starts something like this: “Imagine it’s a beautiful sunny day. You’re in a warm meadow. The sun is shining, the tall grass brushes your legs as you walk…”
By forcing myself to concentrate on the words I’m hearing – listening closely, imagining the feel of warm sun on my face, the sight of white clouds in a blue sky – I’m able, for those 20 minutes, to stop worrying about whatever else has been bothering me: that slight pain in my ribs, the bills I can’t pay, my mother’s upcoming operation.
And when the reading is over, and I open my eyes and get out of bed, I find that everything looks better. I’m ready to face the day with renewed positive energy, and a “glass half full” attitude.
How to get started with meditation? Your local library. Any good library will have both books about meditation, and meditation CDs – readings or music to help you relax.
“Meditation sounds so… weird,” you say. “I’m not that ‘crunchy granola’ type of person.”
But think about it; what have you got to lose? Just that overwhelming anxiety you feel every time you think about cancer, imagining the worst…
While meditation relaxes and heals the mind, thus lessening physical stress, relaxation can happen in reverse, too: when your body is physically relaxed, your mind is calmer.
Remember when your mom used to rub your back to help you sleep? Massage is basically a full-body backrub, performed by a trained massage therapist. Massage encourages the lymph system to do its healing job, increases oxygen and blood flow to cells, and raises levels of endorphins (your body’s “feel good” chemicals). It’s been shown to decrease stress levels, anxiety, and pain; as your body relaxes, so does your mind.
Massage sessions typically last 30 to 60 minutes, and are performed by licensed massage therapists. Many hospitals have massage therapists on staff. And sometimes cancer patients are offered free massage, since it’s been shown to be such a beneficial healing tool. I’ve received several free massages at my local hospital courtesy of Komen for the Cure, which funds massages for breast cancer patients.
Your hospital or cancer center may very well offer an array of mind-body programs, such as massage, Reiki, or Tai Chi, a gentle, stress-reducing exercise. Ask your oncology nurse, or the hospital’s social workers, about any complementary therapies they have available to cancer patients. And then use them!
The mind-body connection is real, and it works. Studies prove it: fighting cancer on all levels – physical, mental, and emotional – is the best path to healing and long-term health. And who doesn’t want that?