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How Mindfulness Can Help You Cope With Cancer

Getting diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment can bring on an avalanche of emotions. Mindfulness is a way to help deal with those feelings and keep them from spiraling out of control.

But what is mindfulness? It’s simply slowing down and paying attention to the present moment.

“We spend a lot of time worrying about the future or thinking about the past,” said Lauren A. Zimmaro, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “But mindfulness is focusing on that sweet spot right in between: life that’s happening right now.”   

That might sound simple, but it can be surprisingly effective. Mindfulness can reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression as well as make life feel more enjoyable.

For individuals affected by cancer, bouts of stress and anxiety can be normal occurrences. Just seeing an upcoming treatment appointment on your calendar can trigger anxiety over possible side effects, and feeling some pain near your tumor or treatment site might lead you to worry about whether you’re ever going to get better.

But you can use mindfulness to steer clear of those dark corners and have a more positive outlook overall. Research conducted by Zimmaro and others even suggests that for those with cancer, mindfulness can reduce pain and fatigue as well as ease sleeplessness.

“Mindfulness allows for more of a space between having something stressful happen and responding in a way that’s helpful, instead of just automatically going to your habitual reaction,” Zimmaro said.

How to be more mindful

Anyone can incorporate more mindfulness into their everyday lives—you don’t need any special tools or formal training. All you have to do is pay attention to what’s going on right here, right now. A few ways to do this include:

Taking a walk: While doing this, don’t get lost in your thoughts. Instead, direct your attention to the sights, sounds, and smells around you.

Slowing down and breathing: Sit quietly for a few minutes, and simply pay attention to how you inhale and exhale.

Doing something you love: Listen to a favorite song, read an engrossing book, or take time for a favorite hobby. It’s hard to worry about cancer when you’re actively enjoying something else.

Refocusing your thoughts: Even while doing the things mentioned above, negative thoughts might come up. When they do, resist the urge to get sucked in. Focus instead on something that’s happening in the present—what your feet feel like on the ground, how the sun or wind feels on your face, or even just on your breathing. After a minute or two, the thought might fade away.

Finally, work on being mindful every day—even when you’re feeling fine. Practicing mindfulness when you’re not stressed can make it easier to tap into those same skills when you’re anxious or upset.

 “Over time, you’ll get better at not automatically jumping to those ‘what-if’ thoughts,” Zimmaro said.