Post by Sam Lozier, Cancer Hope Network Support Volunteer
Hear more from Sam at her blog You Can Handle The Truth.
“The most important time in your life is right now.” ~ Deepak Chopra.
Ever since I sat cross-legged on my bed, lit a candle, and got still to meditate, things have shifted in my life. For a highly anxious person such as myself who has faced a lot of difficult challenges throughout the years, being diagnosed with cancer just increased that anxiety ten-fold. Meditation has been a true life line for me and even when I don’t do it consistently, when I come back to the quiet, it always just feels right.
I was first introduced to meditation by a friend of mine in the summer of 2013 while I was waiting for biopsy results to come back. I had been told that the cancer I had when I was 28 years old (ocular melanoma) could have spread almost 8 years later, as lesions had been found on my liver in an annual MRI. I had doctor’s appointments and a biopsy and was even told about clinical trials all before the results came back. In that two week window of time (yes, you read that right: I had to wait almost two weeks to get the results back), I was told that if the biopsy results came back malignant then it would be a Stage IV cancer, “very hard to treat,” and that some people live “10-15 years, and others don’t.” Needless to say, I wasn’t sure how to function, let alone go to work every day and continue with my daily obligations. The whole world felt like it was spinning and I was sure that at any moment, I might slip right off the earth and disappear.
Meditation was something that I could hold onto during this terrifying time. It didn’t completely take the fear away of course; it didn’t stop me from crying in the shower and in the grocery store and waking up in a cold sweat during the night. But it did ground me, if even for a few minutes, in the here and now. “Now my butt is seated firmly on the ground,” I would think. “That is real. Now my hands are in my lap. That is real.” And so on and so forth. My friend had sent me a “Perfect Health” Meditation narrated by Deepak Chopra, and his voice and the mantras lulled me as much as I could be lulled. At a time when I felt so helpless, this was one thing that I could easily reach for to incorporate some stillness into what had become an otherwise totally chaotic world.
Although the biopsy results came back negative, more doctors’ appointments (second opinions) and another scan and another biopsy and more waiting all revealed that in fact, the first pathology report had been incorrect, and it was a Stage IV cancer in my liver that had spread from my eye. Meditation made another big comeback in my life when it sunk in that this was my reality; I was going to have live with cancer and figure out how to manage not just my physical health, but my mental health as well. I needed tools.
After living with this cancer for the past two years I can’t say that I no longer experience anxiety or that fear doesn’t sometimes get the best of me, but I can say that I have learned an awful lot about being grounded in the present moment and learning how to tell the difference between what my head is saying and what my intuition is feeling. These are things that I deeply attribute to my meditation practice and to my ability to manage a very profound kind of stress in my life.
This past August my friend and I traveled to Carlsbad California to attend the Chopra Center’s four day workshop entitled “Journey into Healing.” I was jonesing to go because I wanted to know what that journey could look like; I wanted to be with like-minded people, learn more about creating a meditation practice, and I also wanted the Ayurvedic perspective on my health (Ayurveda translates to the “Science of Life.” It is the ancient Hindu system of medicine, which is based on the idea of balance in bodily systems and the idea that the mind and body are inextricably connected). And OK, I wanted to go because Kris Carr would be there and I just love the opportunity to be anywhere close to her; her good energy is just contagious. She is one of the massive reasons why I’ve found enough strength to fight this fight (if you’re not familiar with the woman who I like to call my BFF though I’ve only met her a handful of times, I highly encourage you to find her here: www.kriscarr.com).
This workshop was not specifically for people with cancer and in attendance were doctors, nurses, spiritual healers, people looking for new ways to help their patients and then others just looking to lead happier and healthier lives. After learning so much from Deepak, Kris, and their colleagues, there is a lot that I would love to share with you. Here are my top-notch “notes” that I’m bringing back from Carlsbad just for you:
- Have hope. I can’t say this enough. I want to shout it from the rooftops, see it in sky-writing, and tattoo it on my forehead. I don’t know your personal stories and I’m not a doctor, but I understand that when our team of doctors and nurses treat us like there is no hope, it takes the fire right out of us. Am I right? I can’t sugar-coat anything; I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I live with an incurable disease. But what I do know is that having hope helps me to find that spark that ultimately gives me the courage to strive for and to live a joyful life with a chronic illness, as well as sustains me with enough energy that I can focus on my own health and wellness. Do I get it perfectly all the time? Absolutely not! But when we can tap into that well of hope, the next step is being able to spell out its importance to our doctors and anybody else who cares for us. They need to understand that as much as they have to give us the odds, statistics, and basic facts about our illnesses, we carry the hope that we won’t just be a statistic. Once we understand this, then we can ask for those in our life including our medical team to carry that faith and optimism with us as well. There isn’t anybody at the Chopra Center who didn’t make me feel hopeful during those four days.
- According to the Chopra Center, behavior today has consequences for our genes, altering their expression in pretty amazing ways. Every thought, feeling, and sensation in the mind sends a message to every cell in the body. Before I attended the Chopra Center, I wasn’t aware that our thoughts impact and change our biology on a regular basis. Therefore things like meditation, yoga and gratitude journaling are just a few of the ways in which we can create experiences that positively affect our biology. Positive vibes are not just for hippies!
- One of the things that Ayurveda teaches us is that good health is dependent upon our ability to fully metabolize the nutritional, emotional, and sensory information that we consume. Support your digestive system by strengthening it. Ayurveda teaches us how to create a robust digestive energy (known as “Agni” or fire), which in turn creates healthy tissues. If our Agni is weakened, digestion is incomplete and can lead to toxic residue. Here are a few ways to strengthen your digestive fire: Try not to eat in front of the computer or TV; don’t eat when you are emotionally upset or unsettled; include all six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent) at each meal, and stick with drinking water in between meals, not during. One of the many things that I took away from my time in this workshop was to eat a little bit of a bigger lunch, and smaller dinner. By finishing dinner by 7pm each night and trying not to eat anything past that time, I am kindling my Agni and usually feel a bit lighter in the morning.
- Invest in yourself, listen to your intuition, and “live in tune with nature.” Tune in to your body in order to create the best balance possible. Feed your senses with experiences that uplift and nourish you. When you slip out of tune with nature, your desires becomes non-nurturing and you may crave things like junk food and neglect sleep and exercise, ultimately bringing on more stress. The more you can flow in harmony with your body’s natural rhythms, the more that you can live feeling healthy and balanced.
- Hey, guess what: We’re not just cancer patients, we’re human! The doctors, practitioners, spiritual advisors and motivational speakers at this conference never made me feel like a cancer patient. In fact, Dr. Daniel Vicario who co-founded the San Diego Cancer Center and who is an integrative oncologist who lights up when he talks about hope, put his hands firmly on my shoulders, looked into my eyes, and said that I am not a cancer patient, I am a human being. And you are too. Don’t ever forget it.
- Learn how to meditate. We’ve all heard about the benefits of meditating over and over again (managing stress, lowering blood pressure, decreasing anxiety, helping with pain management, getting in touch with our intuition, and the list goes on), but for a lot of us we think that if we can’t get our minds to be completely still, then there is no benefit. Not true! Deepak Chopra and his team presented research that there is still a great mental and physical benefit to meditating whether you think you are “good” at it or not. (When I read a story on Kris Carr’s blog about a nun named Pema Chodron who has been meditating for 40 years and who claims that she’s horrible at it, I had to laugh!). And while we hear about the “why” a lot, we don’t always hear about the “how.” So here is the “Cliff Notes” version of what I learned at the Chopra Center: A consistent place helps. Pick somewhere in your home or wherever you feel at peace; perhaps light a candle or have some kind of a ritual. This can help you to better connect to your meditation. Try not to sit in direct sunlight, which can be draining. Try to do it before eating or vigorous exercise (first thing in the morning is great, if you can) and not too close to bedtime. And here’s the big one—approach each meditation with innocence and never with expectations.
- “You can be healed, but not cured, and you can be cured, but not healed.” Never were wiser words spoken, thanks to my shining star Kris Carr. We can strive to be in “remission” which is a great goal, but for some of us, living a life with an illness does not mean that we have “failed.” We can still love and accept ourselves, living a full and vibrant life, no matter the circumstances. (And even if we’re cured, we may still need to work on healing the old emotional wounds that can tie us back from being our authentic selves). Once we truly believe that and live it, the world can open up to us in a whole new and illuminating way.
- As the amazing Dr. Mark Hyman taught us at the Chopra Center, “There’s no such thing as junk food. There is either junk, or food.” Just let that sink in for a moment. We’re bombarded with messages about nutrition, but this is one nugget of wisdom that has stayed with me. I’m now much more mindful of the differences between “junk” and real, actual, good-for-you-and-makes-your-soul-happy food. Instead of obsessing about calories or carbs, I like to think: Does what I’m eating come from the fridge, or the pantry? A box with a label, or grown organically in the ground? Processed or natural? Many recommend shooting for eating “clean” 80% of the time, so that a little bit of wiggle room helps you from feeling deprived. Listen to your body but show yourself some compassion as well.
In thinking about gratitude, high on my list is being able to have the opportunity to attend Deepak Chopra’s “Journey into Healing” workshop. I love sharing these ideas with you and encourage you to check out www.chopra.com for lots more info. I have immense appreciation for my doctors and western medicine, as well as these integrative health doctors, spiritual advisors, and holistic gems out there just waiting for us to soak them up. I hope that you’ll join me on this journey.
With hope, love and gratitude,