Staying calm with pancreatic cancer

I got into meditation about 15 years ago, in my late 50s, so it is never too late to try something new. It appealed to me because it is based on the idea that we can all achieve a deeply calm state and let go, in a natural human way. The process encourages you to be realistic and make the most of yourself and your time. Useful objectives when you have had or living with a life-threatening disease!

In its fashionable form known as Mindfulness training, it is back in vogue again, but it has been going on for thousands of years. There are many different styles but the objective is always the same: to calm your mind, get your worries in perspective and get in touch with yourself. There is plenty of evidence that stress causes illness, no doubt including cancer. Stress is a major human problem because we put ourselves under unnatural pressures and we don’t know how to truly relax. There is an equal amount of evidence that proper relaxation, of mind and body, is very positive and healing.

I started meditating long before I got pancreatic cancer five years ago. As a result, I could use it to help me to relax as soon as I felt well enough to sit upright 15 minutes in the morning! Not easy when you wake up feeling like you have been hit by a bus! Sitting, or lying still, morning, night or at any convenient time is important. It’s a lot like trying to get to sleep: impossible if your body is tense and your mind is working overtime.

If you have cancer it’s no surprise that you feel a little uptight. Cancer leaves you feeling negative and worried and, after surgery, sore and uncomfortable. Chemo and radiotherapy just makes matters worse, just when you are feeling a little better! Meditation offers a means to fight back, using the massively underestimated power of your mind. Whether you have just been diagnosed or you are waiting to know what happens next, or recovering after treatment, try this:

Find a quiet place and time. For me that is the edge of my bed facing my window when I am dressed and ready to go in the morning. You can also do it at night so that it helps you to get to sleep, or when you are in bed ready to nod off. Physical relaxation is good for you at any time but you cannot meditate or learn mindfulness without it, so get that sorted out first.

Mentally scan your body, slowly, head to toe and relax each part in turn, especially your shoulders. If you are sitting, maintain just enough tension to keep your back straight and your head up – no slouching and pay attention! Concentrate only on relaxing. We rarely do this, so it needs practice. But if you fill your mind with that effort, soon there won’t be room for your worries or your discomfort. If your mind wanders, and it will, think about your breath going in and out and the rise and fall of your chest. This is a common aid to meditation. Try that for a while, until you can reach a state where you can’t feel any tension anywhere. There is no rush, so take your time and do not worry if you can’t do it every time. Buddhist monks do this for hours and even they have off-days!

Do not try to empty your mind. That is not what it’s about at all. Allow your feelings, thoughts and worries about your situation to come freely. Some will be powerful and disturbing but allow them to become conscious, so that you can confront them, come to terms with them, then let them go. If you allow them to fester in your subconscious, you will never be rid of them. When they arise again, repeat the process until they become weak or stop coming. Do not fight against them, but do not grasp or clutch them either. Mentally stand back and observe them for what they are: just thoughts. They only exist because you raised them in your mind and you can let them go. Everything which arises will fade away, but you must allow it to do so.

When you have considered your feelings, emotions and thought long enough, move on to what is happening in your life. Deliberately bring these events to mind – past, present and future – and think about each one in turn. Do not shy away from them; face them down. Make decisions and plans if you feel the need. If you realise that you have nothing pleasant to look forward, make a mental note to do something about that. Then let go. Do not hang on to anything!

Keep going until there is nothing much left in your mind except a calm awareness. That’s the real you that you can feel; the silence of your mind that you can hear. It will feel strange at first, but you are now here, in the present, resting with nothing else to do. But you are alert, in a safe place to which you can return anytime you feel overwhelmed or low. This is being mindful. It is this simple. You are just being, and quietly enduring what you perhaps thought was unendurable.

Calming your body and clearing your mind in this way also frees up your amazing self-healing powers. Just get yourself and your worries out of the way and relax. Your fundamental, uncluttered self will sort itself out if you just let it. You will know that you are getting somewhere when you can tell yourself: Cancer? Ok, I can deal with that. Bring it on.