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How meditation helped me cope with cancer

by User Stories

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When I was diagnosed with cancer on the last day of June, I had no idea of the tidal wave coming my way. I read a lot of biographies and memoirs, and I had read a number of them written by people who had dealt with cancer in their own lives. But when YOU have cancer, when Cancer with a capital C, has you in its uniquely personal grasp, it doesn’t let go until it’s finished with you. You have to find your own way through diagnosis, treatment, and the world after.

I was lucky. I had a wonderful support system. Family. Work. Friends. Neighbors. They all rallied around me. Made me food. Sent me cards. Emailed me. Mowed my lawn. But when you are alone in the dark, at night, with Cancer, you have only yourself to rely on.

I had always wanted to learn to meditate. I had gone on a silent retreat where I first learned to sit in silence. I had a tendency to use the quiet space to think about my grocery list. Helpful, but not restorative. Then we learned walking meditation. I loved the pace and cadence, but found that it didn’t translate to home where I had to step over Legos and Barbies, or to my hilly neighborhood without sidewalks. I would come back to meditation periodically, but I just couldn’t establish a practice. I discovered that I preferred the sound of someone talking. No bells, chimes, waves, water dripping, or chants. I found background noises distracting. The sound of waves made me wish I was at the beach. It was at this point of frustration, after several weeks of searching, that I found Headspace.

Headspace had three things going for it right away. First, I could try it for ten days for free before committing to a subscription. Second, it had levels of progression that started with Take10: ten minutes a day of starting to learn how to meditate and sitting still. And third, Headspace meditations are voiced by Andy Puddicombe. His voice is calm, with no annoying qualities—just this pleasant accent. I fell in love with the Headspace site, how it instructed me, and with Andy’s calm voice.

While I had a team of people to take care of me medically, I was determined to take care of my mental and physical progress.

I subscribed to Headspace for two months. Times were tight at our house since my husband was out of work and we had two children in college, so I let my subscription go. For two-and-a-half months, I thought about Headspace every day, missing the calm of Andy’s voice. My brother sent us some money that fall to tide us over, and once we’d paid some bills, I subscribed to a whole year of Headspace. It was like coming home.

While I had a team of people to take care of me medically, I was determined to take care of my mental and physical progress. I stuck to my regular morning routine as much as possible: get up, make coffee, meditate and get ready for the day. I don’t remember which Headspace pack I was doing when I got my diagnosis, but I switched pretty quickly to Stress. A lot of things were changing quickly, but the coffee pot still perked every morning, and Andy’s voice kept guiding me on.

That makes this stage of my life sound more calm than it was. There’s a term, “ monkey mind,” that describes how our brains leap all about, full of thoughts and distractions. Whatever rhythm I had achieved maintaining my meditation practice over the course of a year was blown to pieces. The whole extended procedure of diagnosing my cancer and deciding on a treatment plan was like throwing bananas into the monkey house. Surgery? Lumpectomy? Mastectomy? Radiation? Chemo? Medical leave? Every question begat more questions, and more decisions I had to make. Suddenly the twenty minutes guided mediation felt like it was two hours long. I dropped down to ten minutes, and kept at it every day.

The day of my surgery, I got up early and meditated, by this time having moved on to the Anxiety pack. It made me a little less anxious, and I went off to the hospital with my overnight bag and my phone. The next morning after my surgery, feeling like I had been chomped on by a Sharknado, I fired up Headspace for the next session of Anxiety. I fell back into a drug-induced sleep half-way through. I continued to meditate every day for ten minutes. Was I always awake those entire ten minutes? No. Did I always reach a state of calm peacefulness? No. But it was vitally important that in those days when I seemed to have little control over my life, where I felt like absolute shit, that I continued to try and meditate. I needed it more than I had on all those quiet, early mornings in the house, before Cancer came to be my roommate.

I still had many things I was anxious about, but Andy was there, with his calm voice, day after day, not judging me when I sometimes had to restart the session three times to make it all the way through.

I am lucky. I did not have to have radiation, and I did not have to have chemotherapy. Both of those were huge factors in my ability to get back to actually working out again (I love spinning), and back to work (half-time at first). I am at a point now where doctor’s visits and cancer treatment are not the focal point of my day-to-day existence. It was a wonderful feeling the first time I could sit upright in a chair for the entire ten minutes of the Headspace meditation. I have now worked my way back up to fifteen minutes.

Could I have survived cancer without meditation? Certainly. But meditating daily with Headspace helped me deal with cancer emotionally—an arena that was never addressed by any of my caregivers except my family’s general practitioner. It was necessary to write my own prescription for inner care. As it turns out,there are apps for that.

Annie Wilcox is currently healthy and living in North Liberty, Iowa with her husband, four cats and two grown children nearby. She is a writer and assistant store manager at Barnes & Noble.

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was not paid for their writing.

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