Cancer as a Mindfulness Accountability Partner

Cancer as a Mindfulness Accountability Partner |“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”(Buddha)

My wife is a picture of health. She has always eaten well and been physically active, and she has a wide network of friends and family.

One day a few years ago a routine asymptomatic colonoscopy altered that picture. She had an obviously cancerous mass. A workup ensued which revealed stage 4B metastatic colon cancer. Ultimately she was found to have “mets” from the colon to her ovaries, liver and lungs.

Over the following months, the extremely skilled surgeons and oncologists who treated her worked together to achieve a miraculous state of “no evidence of disease”. Unfortunately, though, over time metastases in her lungs started to grow. She is now back on chemotherapy.

Often as I watch her in social situations, vibrant, full of life and engaged in meaningful interaction, I begin to tear. You see, this cancer is terrifying. For both of us. And this is why it is also our mindfulness accountability partner. My wife and I are acutely aware that we have to live in this moment. The fact is that all of us have to live in this moment, regardless of our age or current state of health.

If you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future you have nothing to stand on in this moment. That is made profoundly clear by cancer. We could live in the past and relive all of the what-ifs. What if we had done the colonoscopy earlier? What if we’d tried this diet or that alternative therapy? What if, what if, what if. Or we could live in the future. We could wonder about a cure or progression. But now is when life is happening. And whether we have a short time or a lifetime together, we will live it now, and now, and now.

It is human nature to link things we have done to what has subsequently happened to us, and then to make judgements on ourselves. For example, we might blame ourselves for a disease state because we didn’t exercise enough or didn’t eat the right kinds of vegetables. Or we might think that we are the “victor” over disease because we ate the right kind of vegetable or exercised enough. We talk about “fighting” disease and “winning” the battle. And this kind of language somehow suggests that there are “losers” of this battle, too. Which in turn suggests that the losers must not have tried hard enough or worked hard enough or eaten enough vegetables or done enough exercise or had the right thoughts or prayed enough or believed enough….

That is simply a false premise.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people, people who try hard and “should” be “winners” of the “battle”, and there doesn’t appear to be a good reason for it. Maybe, by using this kind of language and judgement system, however privately or subconsciously, we’re seeing things through an unhelpful lens.

The fact is that we all will die. Whether we die of any particular disease is neither a “victory” or “defeat”, it is simply what happens. Having a disease that is not curable does not leave you defeated. And sometimes the rational thing to do is to stop treatment. That does not imply giving up. At other times the rational thing to do is every treatment option available, and that does not imply that you’re fighting harder. Both actions imply that you’re doing the right thing for that particular moment. That you’re being in the present moment, and acting from the present moment. That willingness to be present in the now, even when it feels like a very scary place, is a win. Not, perhaps, for the body. A win for the soul.

And it is possible to be dying from a disease while healing your life. This sounds insane, I know, but it can be. As I said at the beginning of this post, cancer can be an accountability partner for mindfulness. It can offer a rare opportunity for us to focus on how we are really more alike than different, on what’s important to us and what’s trivial and can be let go of, and on how to love people for who they are and where they are.  It’s an absolute primer in how to forgive.

Forgiveness may involve forgiving another person or a situation, but at its core it is to have compassion for yourself and let go. The root of the word forgive means to untie. To forgive is really to untie yourself from negative, entrapping emotions.  The perspective gained by facing cancer can provide the strength to live in the moment, deeply appreciate others and reach a state of forgiveness and self-compassion. That is one serious mindfulness accountability partner.

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