Coping with Cancer

Faced with cancer, mindfulness instructor Elana Rosenbaum had to put her practice to the test. Watch the mindfulness/health dialogue that took place at Creating a Mindful Society.

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In the middle of a professional training session where I was teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction to healthcare professionals, I received a phone call from my husband. He wanted to give me the results of a biopsy on a lump in my neck. I wasn’t too concerned about the test, as I felt well and stayed fit. I was surprised to learn I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

As a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher, it was my job to help people cope with troubling emotions and medical problems. Now I had to be, as I told others, “more than my disease” and focus on what was right rather than wrong with me. I knew that mindfulness, the ability to be in the present moment with clarity and kindness, would help me, as it has aided the thousands of patients I have worked with since 1984.

During treatment and throughout my recovery, I always carried a notebook and colored pencils to express in words and pictures feelings that could not otherwise be released. I promised myself not to suffer and to be open to all of my experiences, good and bad. Each moment became an opportunity to ride the waves of my thoughts, feelings and sensations, and to find the place inside of me that was calm.

I discovered that not only had my body changed, but also my perceptions. Today, being aware of my mortality helps me stay alert. I do my best to resolve conflicts as they arise. I know the preciousness of relationships, love, and meaningful work. I try to be more kind and forgiving both to others and to myself. I recognize how easy it is to fall into negativity or burden myself with unrealistic expectations. My motto used to be: “It can always be worse.” Now, it is: “Yes to life” and “Go for it.”

Here at Dana-Farber, where I am now a patient, I was fortunate to teach meditation to patients, families, and staff at drop-in sessions and classes that highlight coping with cancer through mindfulness. I offered these classes through the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies. My use of meditation while I had my stem cell transplant helped inspire a research study, headed by Susan Bauer-Wu, DNSc, director of the Phyllis F. Canter Center for Research in Nursing and Patient Care Services, about how this approach can help staff. During my recovery, I wrote a credo. Every now and then, I take it out and look at it. It says:

I resolve to dwell in the present and not be captured by fear. I shall use my experience to remember the preciousness of life and the gifts I have received. I shall challenge myself to live wisely and make meaning of my experience, letting it transform me. I shall work to bring peace to others, so they too, may, be free. I am filled with gratitude to all who have helped me be alive and well. May I never forget the grace that has been bestowed upon me.

It is not important what will be tomorrow. It is important to live today in harmony with myself and others and use the love I receive to give it out again. I shall work to maintain a balance, opening up to what is true, and acting accordingly. I shall not be ashamed of praise but value my efforts, appreciate my bravery, and celebrate my joy. May I be able to: enjoy, replenish, dance, and sing; make love; care fully for my body and the spirit, and help others do the same.

May we all be well, and may I live with ease and happiness.