by Paul Brenner, M.D., Ph.D.
In medicine, we are amazingly successful at alleviating physical pain, but are too often at a loss for how best to relieve emotional pain.
The mind is the greatest stressor known to humankind, and nowhere does that become more apparent than when a loved one or you face a medical diagnosis like cancer. We are plagued with incessant thoughts: When is the next blood marker, PET, or MRI? Should I have seen the doctor sooner? Will we make the family events? The mind seems to incessantly jump from past to future, and from future back to past. Cancer steals the present.
Interestingly enough, fear-based anxiety was once very important, as it allowed early humankind to predict and avoid harmful situations. Living in high anxiety was an essential survival mechanism of a young species that needed to avoid threats to their existence. Threats of insufficient food, fire, shelter, and a host of predators were very real. The ability for early humans to stress over a potential future threat, even when the present was safe, could mean the difference between life and death.
As the millennia have passed, those tangible threats are, for most of us, no longer a concern. Yet we have been unable to turn off the mind’s old survival mechanism of anxiety, and still feel its associated stress. Prolonged stress is detrimental to both our physical and emotional health, leading to, among other things: tension, irritability, anxiety, difficulty making decisions, a loss of interest and appetite, anger, sleep problems, headaches, back pains, and stomach problems. The fight-or-flight defense mechanism is extremely difficult to shut down. As a result, the majority of our everyday thoughts tend to be negative or fear-based: I hope I made the right turn. Will I be late? Darn, I forgot the butter. I hope the kids call. These everyday mini-stresses are jolts to our body and immune system. The incessant chatter of the mind has been referred to in India as the monkey brain.
The diagnosis of cancer is often contained in a cloud of fear. We may fixate on negative stories of treatment and survival rates from the past, rather than in the light of present-day survival and remission rates. Or we may become hostage to imagining every future, worst-case scenario for ourselves, internet-phobia.
The key to finding peace during difficult times is to monitor negativity, fear, or any thoughts that dwell on the past or project into the future. To live successfully with cancer is to filter out past beliefs and future assumptions that distort the reality that you are here right now. You are alive and capable of experiencing the present gift of life.
G.I. Gurdjieff, an esoteric teacher living during the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, taught the practice of self-remembering. Self-remembering offers a practical exercise to turn off negative, mental static. It is the practice of observing one’s thoughts. This technique offers individuals a chance to witness their mind and block those dysfunctional thoughts and emotional responses by repeating a word, phrase, positive affirmation, prayer, etc., for no more then ten to fifteen seconds. This process replaces unpleasant beliefs with constructive thinking.
As I myself am currently living with cancer, this personally comes up for me weeks before my scans, blood tests, and cancer markers. These thoughts are simply unhealthy since I have absolutely no control of the future. I cannot afford to have my mind dull my joy of being here.
Additionally, before going to bed, I suggest you write in a journal three things that you are grateful for from the day; this simple process calms the mind, proven to lift depression. If you awaken during the night for any reason, I recommend that you do not look at a light source or a clock. Just close your eyes and stare into the darkness. The darkness can put you into a meditative state by also focusing on your breath and will bring you back to sleep.
Remember the mind is both a healer and a slayer; health-filled thoughts and beliefs can replace negative thoughts. If you can control your thoughts, you can control your life. This is extremely important in managing emotional pain, the chemical response to anxiety, fear, and self-rejection. The only thoughts worth thinking about are love of self, love of others, and love of life. When practiced, you will begin to witness your stream of unconscious and experience how some thoughts make you feel uncomfortable and constricted, while others create a sense of expansion and well being. Your body physiology responds within millisecond to your every thought, especially those well-worn fearful patterns. When tense, breathe. Breath is life expanding.
Cancer, like any life-altering experience, cracks each one of us to the core. I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics in the song, Anthem. He sings: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” As a physician, caregiver and patient, that crack, cancer, has shown me the nobility of human beings. It is the ability to deal with any eventuality of life, yet the willingness to continue the life journey. That crack holds the potential for us to reassess our priorities and make each choice, each moment, each day count in sickness and in health.
Paul Brenner M.D., PhD. is a gynecological oncologist who practiced obstetrics and gynecology, and also holds a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology. His journey through the healing arts has been in search of those unseen processes that play into chronic illness. He presently is the Psychosocial Oncologist at the UCSD Health Systems San Diego Cancer Center. Also, he is a Research Fellow at The San Diego Cancer Research Institute. He is involved in studying the impact of Trans-Generational Emotional Patterns on Health and Illness. He is the author of Seeing your Life Through New Eyes and Buddha in the Waiting Room. He also has lectured throughout the world.