After My Diagnosis, Meditation Made My Mental Health Worse – and Then a Lot Better

When people I know are diagnosed with cancer, I'm always amazed by how they react to the news. Within the past year, two women in my life have been given a late-stage breast cancer diagnosis and delivered the news to the public with stoic optimism. I don't want pity, one of them said. I know I'm going to be OK. Another woman got the diagnosis and threw a party for her friend a few days later, in an attempt to take her mind off it. A few days after that she cleaned her house, knowing she might be exhausted after the chemotherapy treatments.

My experience was extremely different

To me, this is like a superpower, and needless to say, my own experience was extremely different. I got the news I had bladder cancer in early 2017 and my first reaction was to start crying hysterically and asking the urologist whether I should make a last will and testament. Even weeks later I found myself crying at the drop of a hat and suffering panic attacks, eventually needing to enroll myself in an outpatient program to deal with the bomb that had just been detonated in the middle of my life. Stoicism and optimism are not things that come naturally to me – at least not at first. Instead, I learned those skills slowly, over time, with the help of meditation.

I was skeptical about meditation

I had never tried to meditate seriously before my cancer diagnosis, thinking that my racing thoughts and impatience made it an impossibility. But during my outpatient therapy program, when the counselor announced she was going to lead us in a daily mindfulness meditation practice, I decided to (skeptically) give it a try. I wasn't sure exactly how it would help me, but as a science and health writer, I had heard offhandedly that meditation was a great practice for cancer patients. Research has shown, in fact, that mindfulness meditation reduces stress among cancer patients and is even associated with improved outlook and lower fatigue.

I didn't expect to feel worse at first

What I definitely didn't expect was that meditation would make me feel worse at first. In outpatient therapy, sitting in a circle with our hands on our laps and our feet on the floor, we were instructed to do nothing but pay attention to the thoughts that entered our minds and observe them non-judgmentally. Surprised, I realized that having an active mind or being easily distracted doesn't preclude someone from mindfulness meditation: Participants are asked to take note of their thoughts and return to the present moment when distraction occurs. Like whirlwind, thoughts of dying and leaving my kids motherless swirled through my head. By the time the exercise ended, I had tears streaming down my face, both because the thoughts I had were so troubling, but also because I recognized how persistently this anxious script had been playing in my head. Almost every thought I had was fixated on cancer, dying, sickness, and how my body would never, ever be a safe place to inhabit.

Things started to change

Eventually, though, things started to change. When I started the meditation practice in the beginning of group therapy, I thought the purpose of meditation was to make someone calmer. But the actual purpose is to become more attuned to your thoughts and, in doing so, disconnect from them. The more I paid attention to these thoughts – about death, dying, cancer – the more I became familiar with them, and my relationship toward them changed. I started recognizing them as merely thoughts – not necessarily what was fated to happen. Paradoxically, the more I paid attention to scary thoughts about dying and cancer that ran through my mind, the less they bothered me. I started understanding anxiety as just something weird my brain did – not something reflective of reality, necessarily.

It was a months-long journey to get to this point. But thankfully, by the time my outpatient program ended, my anxiety about cancer had almost vanished. For the first time since my diagnosis, I was actually optimistic about the outcome. I had learned a new superpower.

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