Coping with Cancer and Anxiety: Breathing, Relaxing, Being

Coping with Cancer and Anxiety: Breathing, Relaxing, Being
"Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment." Buddha

People with cancer experience anxiety in every imaginable form. Sometimes it’s a siren scream and other times it’s the irregular drip of a faucet. Anxiety is intrusive and distracting. It grinds away and swallows. If there were a competition for the worst part of having cancer, anxiety would win hands down.

Anxiety has been a presence in my life as long as I can remember. Having moved a dozen times by eighth grade, I was used to being the new kid. I remember so many nights hoping beyond hope that tomorrow wouldn’t come, that the “right now” would last forever. Anticipating the negatives in life make the negatives much worse. And, when the next day comes, life can be even worse than you anticipated.

I have been learning how to cope with cancer and the anxiety in my life through a “Guided Imagery” class at the Cancer Support Center. My daughter and I attend together, and we look forward to the 45-minute session all week. If my mother were alive, she’d be struck dumb by this fact.

In addition to being anxiety ridden, I’m task oriented, a doer. When I’m awake I’m moving, cleaning, riding my bike, playing the piano, cooking, planning, organizing, washing, folding, cleaning, calling, scheduling, writing, reading, grading, emailing, Facebooking, gardening, re-organizing, and cleaning. Did I mention cleaning?

The idea of sitting still and being “in the moment” is repugnant to me. In the past, when I’ve tried to relax I’ve felt claustrophobic and trapped. I’m a restless spirit, a high energy caffeine addict.

"My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance." Erma Bombeck

"My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance." Erma Bombeck

My mother knew this and was greatly irritated by it. When I was a child I’d get up early in the morning and clean the living room, which meant that everything was dusted and all the books, magazines, and tchotchkes were set at right angles. She woke up to a living room where everything was lined up.

For years she tried to get me to learn visualization techniques and relaxation exercises. I was never interested, and I can remember mocking the cheesiness of the enterprise. The velvety voices gently talking about ocean waves tapped into the snarky, sarcastic me.

My mother died when she was 51 and I was 31. On the day she died I went back to her house and found her purse. I put my head inside of it and breathed deeply. I could smell her lotion and gum. I found part of my mom inside that purse, the comforting, familiar smells of who she was.

I also found a tape called “Self Visualization.” I put it into a walkman and put earphones on and pressed play. It was her voice. Overwhelmingly her. She was describing a house in a meadow where she could go to find peace. There was the sound of trickling water in the background. It had all of the cheesy sounds and words that usually made me want to toss back an espresso.

But, it was my mom’s voice. Hearing it--she could have been reading the grocery list--was soothing. Despite her absence, I had a living part of her. At first I cried. But then I started breathing deeply, exhaling fully, traveling with her to the house in the meadow. I found peace in the present moment.

When I snapped out of the meditative mode, I was smiling. Damn, my mom had won. She had actually gotten me to relax.

Twenty years later, last Fall, I re-discovered relaxation. Though I annually listened to my mom’s voice to commemorate her death, that was the extent of visualization for me.

After being diagnosed with cancer, however, anxiety and fear became intolerable. Thankfully, I was directed to the Cancer Support Center and the “Guided Imagery” class.

We sit in a dimly lit room, eyes closed, listening to one of the counselors reading a script. Sometimes the script walks us through relaxation techniques, moving from head to toe, reminding us to breathe and exhale, breathe and exhale.

We are taken on boats, to beaches, to meadow, and forests. We find treasures, walk up stairs, fly, and swim. We leave behind our luggage, imagine gifts and people.

Many of these guided experiences would lead us to water--oceans, beaches, lakes, streams. I was born and raised in the high altitude deserts of the Southwest and water does not resonate for me. Mostly, I have little imagination about it. I don’t know the rhythm of waves and I don’t find comfort in their sound.

“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams...” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams...” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

I tried to imagine these scenes, but gave up and substituted a remembered image of a still and deep swimming pool at a college friend’s apartment. We used to lay on the side of the pool and now and again roll into the water when the heat got to be too much. It’s an idyllic place in my memory, even if it isn’t natural and green and cool.

I discovered that after 10 minutes of relaxation and imagining, no matter where we were guided or what the script said, I was relaxed. I found myself in some sort of blank place, dissociated from my life and my fears and responsibilities.

At the end of 45 minutes the feeling of calm goes all the way to the bone. I have reluctance to leave this blank place almost every time.

This isn’t really a story of transformation. I’m still restless and anxious. I’m still snarky, too. Sometimes I wonder who writes the scripts. Some of them are cringe inducing. The music that plays in the background is simpering. I think the whole scenario could be a Saturday Live routine.

“If we know the divine art of concentration, if we know the divine art of meditation, if we know the divine art of contemplation, easily and consciously we can unite the inner world and the outer world.” Sri Chinmoy

“If we know the divine art of concentration, if we know the divine art of meditation, if we know the divine art of contemplation, easily and consciously we can unite the inner world and the outer world.” Sri Chinmoy

But still, I go back every single week. And, I’ve purchased an iPad app called “Simply Being” that I use frequently. I can set it for five to twenty minutes, and I sometimes take a short break at work to relax. I’m addicted to finding the blank place.

I’m no more bound for Zen Buddhism than I am for Wednesday night prayer meeting in a Baptist church, but I understand why other people are. This regular practice of stopping and being in the present, of zoning out and falling into blankness has rescued me and seen me through some very dark times, providing a way of coping with cancer and anxiety.

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