Why “Befriending” Cancer Mindfully – What Does This Mean Anyway?

What does it mean to “befriend” cancer or any other form of suffering – cancer treatments, uncertainty, impatience, pain, anger, surgery, transplantation of a new liver or other organ, and or life-style adjustments to new circumstances beyond your control?

Befriending cancer or other forms of suffering has to do with acknowledging what you are truly experiencing. It means:

  • Seeing clearly what the situation is, as well as what the situation is not.
  • Acknowledging what is in the present moment, right here, now.

Relating to your suffering in this way allows for a deeper understanding of the situation, enabling you to make conscious, skillful choices about your health. Like getting to know a friend through our experiences with them, we come to appreciate who and what they are and what they are not.

Developing a deeper understanding and making conscious and perhaps creative choices, changes our relationship to our suffering. We are able to be more responsive rather than reactive when stress, anxiety, depression, difficult emotions, and important decisions must be made. Too often we just react to difficult situations, based on our habitual way of dealing with them, and at times, this may be an unconscious reaction. This acknowledging and deepening of our understanding of our experiences – what I call befriending cancer or befriending our suffering, allows us to make conscious choices.

We also learn how not to identify with the suffering. Those with cancer know they are experiencing cancer and its effects, but realize they are not the cancer, they are not the illness. This seemingly slight shift from identifying closely with the cancer or suffering, to a mindful awareness of the experience of having cancer is immensely significant. This is where the space or time for conscious, creative choices is found. Inner wisdom can be drawn upon, rather than reacting out of fear, regret, or resignation.

Mindfulness practices are a way of seeing our suffering for what it is more clearly, changing our relationship to that suffering, and realizing greater healing, freedom from suffering. When I speak of healing, I’m talking about a dramatic change of perspective, “a profound transformation of view,” to quote Jon Kabat-Zinn. This perceptual shift is both attitudinal and emotional. Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, “With this change of perspective comes a shift from feeling out of control and beyond help (helpless and pessimistic) to a sense of the possible, a sense of acceptance and inner peace and control” (Zinn, 1995, p. 168). Just to be clear, healing is not the same as curing. Healing involves a positive change in your relationship to cancer and other forms of suffering (i.e., chronic illnesses, stress, aging, even death). Mounting research does suggest however, that this mindfulness way of being, a sense of wholeness, integrating mind and body, may positively influence disease. For more information about mindfulness and peer reviewed scientific research, visit the American Mindfulness Research Association and see the Resources.

Subsequent postings to this blog will describe how mindfulness enabled me to befriend cancer, cancer treatments, a liver transplant, and recovery. This journey would not have been possible without the help of a wonderful team of support from my wife, daughter, friends, mindfulness and yoga instructors, doctors, nurses, and their staffs.

This journey was traveled with considerably less suffering than if I had considered cancer an enemy. Rather than demonizing and living with the concept of fighting cancer, mindful awareness has allowed me to see my health situation more clearly, to research, brainstorm, and identify many options. Opening to, acknowledging, and understanding what was true for me in this situation helped to save my life. Being able to bring my whole self to this disease and its challenges, rather than being caught-up in fear and “awfulizing” the cancer, truly sustained me on this on-going journey. You can start your own journey to realizing greater health and happiness with your own mindfulness practice.