How Mindfulness Helped Me Cope With Cancer

February 8, 2018
Valérie Sanja Tettinek

Valérie Tettinek worked at a senior executive level for major corporations for nearly 2 decades. Now she specializes in consulting, training, and coaching, particularly in making positive changes in health care and cancer care.

This content was developed in collaboration with LIVESTRONG.

I was 34 years old when I was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma and told that I had 6 months to live. That was 7 years ago. I was an executive at a global aeronautics corporation at the time. When I heard I had cancer, a huge rush of emotions overwhelmed and intimidated me. I have a background in crisis management, so I had been trained to deal with stress and develop greater resilience, but I found that I had been confusing “acting tough” with “being mentally strong.” I realized that I needed to learn how to understand, accept, and manage my emotionsshare on twitter during and after my cancer treatment.

After listening to a radio interview, I learned about emotional intelligence and mindfulness, and I decided to make them a part of how I would manage my cancer diagnosis. Emotional intelligence describes how we recognize emotions in ourselves and in others and how to make use of our emotions to handle situations. Mindfulness is being curious and open to what is going on right here, right now, in your mind and body. Practicing mindfulness can strengthen your emotional intelligence. Together, they empowered me to face what was working and what was not working in my life.

First, I had to assess myself. Becoming resilient involved acknowledging several things about myself:

  • I couldn’t do it all myself. I had to become comfortable with asking for help. I used to think that I could do anything, and I just ended up totally exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Before my cancer diagnosis, I was a “giver” but never knew how to practice “the art of receiving,” and this would cause a lot of frustration among my friends.

  • I had to allow myself to be vulnerable. I had to slowly acknowledge that being vulnerable is a sign of strength and courage, not one of weakness.

  • I had to let go of control. Trying to control everything is exhausting. I realized the truth of the quote that "life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you choose to react to it.” You cannot control your external circumstances, but you can be in charge of your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and actions.

  • I began respecting and honoring my body. I used to treat my body like a machine that could tolerate any pain. When I was going through my cancer experience, I was often tempted to either “reject” my body or hate my body because I felt that it had let me down. Practicing mindfulness taught me self-care, self-love, and self-compassion.

Mindfulness in different ways

I spend between 2 and 3 minutes at a time on mindfulness, for up to 20 minutes per day. These short moments spent on mindfulness are called “micro-practices.” I try to make mindfulness practices a part of my morning routine as often as possible.

Here are 5 practices that have worked well for me:

  1. Breathing. Connecting with my breath allows me to empty my head and silence my busy thoughts. It brings me back to the now instead of living in the future or when I am feeling distressed. For example, I spend about 1 minute with this exercise, saying “I do my best” while inhaling and then “I let go of the rest” while exhaling.

  2. Meditation/journaling. Meditation in combination with journaling is a great experience and tool for quieting the mind. It allows me to go into a deeper reflection. This practice helps me better understand what really matters to me, what I need in the very moment. I like to follow the practice called “RAIN,” developed by Tara Brach.

  3. Morning pages. I do this daily practice for 30 consecutive days. Each day, I choose 1 strong emotion, such as fear, disappointment, or anger, and then for 15 minutes I will jot down all the thoughts that I relate to that emotion. This practice helps me become more aware of what is going on in my life.

  4. Body scan. During a body scan, you pay very close attention to specific areas of your body and develop an awareness of yourself. A body scan is usually done while seated. You breathe in and send your awareness to a part of your body to pay close attention to how it feels.

  5. Mind, body, heart scan. I use this type of scan when I want to know my mental and emotional state. I take 3 breaths. With the first breath, I check in with my head: what thoughts are present? With the second breath, I check in with my body: what emotions are present? With the third breath, I check in with my heart: what is important right now?

I found that using mindfulness and emotional intelligence helped me increase my well-being, feel more empowered, be more resilient, feel thankful, live strong, and thrive.


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