I am a survivor. I finished chemotherapy through a clinical trial and went through my surgeries for breast cancer from 2011-2012. Treatment had come to an end, but I was only beginning to learn. Lost in a net of uncertainty and fear, I attended my first Cancer Survivor Day at UCSD’s Moore’s Cancer Center. I met Steve Hickman, PsyD, the Founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness. He gave a presentation on mindfulness and it immediately resonated with me. I knew this was what I needed, what I wanted to do, and eventually teach. That was more than 8 years ago.
Mindfulness is paying attention, purposefully, to the present moment, without judgement. It is a skill that can be developed and strengthened, akin to exercise for our bodies, it is exercise for our brain. The effects of it when practiced reach far beyond the confines of our brains, and impacts our physiology, for the better. The classical course, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, initially for chronic pain patients. Forty years later, there are over 9000 articles on mindfulness published in PubMed, the premier online library for biomedical literature. Medical data was published on mindfulness which can reduce symptoms of professional burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, and to enhance immunity, decrease insomnia, improve the well-being of cancer patients and their caregivers, along with those afflicted with chronic illnesses inclusive of those with asthma and COPD.
Through 8 weekly 2.5 hour classes with 1 day of mindfulness, the course includes
-guided mindfulness meditation practices
-group support and discussion
-in-class exercises involving small groups
-home formal mindfulness practices
There are a few key ingredients that are non-negotiable for inclusion in this course: participation in home mindfulness practices and showing up to class so that shared and unique experience can be felt and realized. Those two components, when embraced can maximize the ability to strengthen the awareness muscle of the brain, and invoke neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to form new neural connections. You can learn to develop a different, healthier relationship with stress.
As I traverse my post-cancer treatment journey, I have accepted that scares related to my health will be inevitable, and for the rest of my life. Rather than give in to the automatic catastrophizing that I am so capable of doing on behalf of my patients, I recognize those thoughts for what they are, and I learn to come back to fully experiencing the present moment. As a result of mindfulness practice, I experience the extraordinary in the ordinary, and diffuse stress quicker. I can choose my responses to situations as opposed to immediately escalating to an automatic high-stress flight, fight, or freeze mode. The practice of mindfulness has enabled me to become more present for others including my children, other loved ones, my patients, and colleagues. Most importantly, it has empowered me to show up for myself, and to accept myself, just as I am in this moment. Through mindfulness I am cultivating compassion for myself and others. I am taking care of myself first so I can care for others. Mindfulness enriches my life as a survivor. I am thriving because of mindfulness.