I wrote this article in June 2008 in my final week of radiation therapy. I wanted to give people who were going to hear for the first time, “I think radiation therapy is a good treatment option for you”, an idea of what to expect.
Using Mindfulness in Radiation Therapy|
By Cindi Silva
I had breast cancer in my left breast. With left breast cancer the heart might be in the way of the healing radiation therapy, and you will be taught a breath technique to minimize any radiation to the heart. If you have right breast cancer the heart will not be in the way of the healing radiation therapy and you will not need to experience the breath technique. Everything else I describe will be the same. Of course your unique experience of radiation therapy will be your own and your perception of what you are experiencing will be your own.
Radiation therapy is physically a very simple thing to experience. It doesn’t hurt. You don’t really see anything while it’s happening. You change into a gown and are led into a room with a shiny metal table in it, on top of the table is your body cast (a comfortable impression of your body covered with a cloth) and a large robotic radiation machine in back of the table. All you do is climb on the table and lay down on your back. If you are being treated for left breast cancer, when you are cued to, you hold your breath. When you are cued to, you breathe. If you are being treated for right breast cancer you don’t need to experience the breath technique. It’s really physically that simple. To make the Radiation Therapists’ day easier it is helpful if you do the following:
• Show up on Time for your appointment;
• Dress in a gown;
• Lay on a table (a boost is place under your knees for comfort and a small plastic box is placed on your stomach to gauge the depth of your breath — only for left breast cancer);
• Hold your breath and breathe when you’re told to (only for left breast cancer); and
• Then leave approximately 15 minutes from when you first arrived to your appointment.
It doesn’t hurt. You don’t physically feel anything. Honest.
The radiation machine is large. It acts like a robot. It will move above and around you seemingly by itself. It will take weekly films of you, as well as daily send very precise measurements of radiation to your treatment site. These precise measurements were taken at your second appointment and then calculated and fine tuned by a physicist, a mathematician and your doctor. These measurements are so precise that it is difficult for me to comprehend how precise they are. The calculation process takes about two weeks without you, while you are at home living your life.
This most awesome radiation therapy machine is a life saving wonder. While this robotic marvel is moving above you, to the right of you and to the left of you if you listen carefully you will hear some clicking sounds when it seems to be repositioning itself or turning the cell destroying life saving radiation beams to your treatment site. That’s about it.
I like at the end of each treatment when I am told it’s now okay to relax my arms and I move my head to see the bright fluorescent-like green and red lines of light projected on my body in the area being treated and in the room. The room’s lighting is dim.
The body cast is made from some kind of material that makes an impression of your upper body. It really feels comfortable. So every time you go for a treatment you are in the exact same position as you were when the initial extremely precise measurements were taken. The Radiation Therapy Process is physically simple for the patient. The Four Steps are:
1. Initial consultation with radiation oncologist;
2. Next a session with the radiation therapists to make a body cast (and I received 3 tiny tattooed dots for the purpose of lining up my body in the same precise position each time I received radiation therapy);
3. Next session films are taken and the next day you start the radiation therapy treatments; and
4. You go every day for 4 or more weeks depending on what you choose. The treatments in themselves last no more than 15 minutes. You hold your breath when you are told to and breathe when you are told to (for left breast cancer only).
That’s it. Again the physical process is not scary. It doesn’t hurt. It’s really a very amazing complicated technological process with incredible potential benefit to you and your part is extremely simple. Three steps:
1. Show up on time.
2. Lay down still.
3. And breathe when you are told to (for left breast cancer only).
Physical side effects I experienced are:
Area being treated started turning pink after a few days. I’m fair skinned. As weeks go on the area treated became pinker. I’m now at the end of my third week. It looks and feels like a bad sunburn. I stopped wearing a bra by my second week and started to wear a camisole instead. Ask the lingerie specialist at whatever department store you choose for a camisole that offers support. I stopped using deodorant and now use cornstarch instead. It’s less drying to the skin while still drying moisture on my skin. In fact I carry it around with me in my handbag in a little plastic baggy and it spills onto my purse. I welcome the sight of it. It makes me feel very comfortable. I also put Aquaphor on right after the treatment. I feel more fatigue than usual. That doesn’t stop me from doing my daily activities. I still go for walks. 15-20 minutes are refreshing. 35-40 minutes seem to make me feel mentally energized but physically tired. To counteract fatigue I eat protein boosts. I’m a new vegetarian so I eat protein bars, protein powder, and non-meat foods high in protein. I take Tylenol for pain. I know I said the radiation doesn’t hurt. And it doesn’t, but the sunburned like skin sometimes hurts and I also think some of the pain is probably from the surgery I had 3 months ago. The discomfort I’m feeling is a small price to pay for getting rid of the cancer cells in my body. I was told to try Advil to help reduce inflammation and help with pain but my body doesn’t tolerate it. It makes me feel weird.
My advice to someone who is told Radiation Therapy is a recommended treatment for the type of cancer you have:
• It’s okay to feel whatever you are feeling.
• You can do it.
• The radiation isn’t physically scary or painful in any way.
• The only pain I felt from the radiation therapy was initially created by my mind from my untrue, preconceived notion of radiation being a scary thing. It was only mental pain. Only a thought. And I went through with it anyway and am so glad I did. In the process I have learned to no longer create mental pain for myself. I’ve learned that thoughts are only thoughts. The experience transformed me mentally. I have a seven year old son. He has taught me all about the world of Pokémon and their stages. I like to use Pokémon and their stages as a metaphor for when we encounter a powerful learning experience in our life and we transform to the next (level) stage of our self as a result of it. My son has explained to me that for Pokémon a stage is when they (transform) evolve to the next (level) stage. My son has told me some Pokémon only have one stage, while other Pokémon have two, three or four stages. I asked him if anyone knew why this is. He first told me no one knows why it is, it just is. After reflection my son told me only the Pokémon professors know why this is. If I were a Pokémon I would say that in the last two months I have evolved to my third stage of my Pokémon self. In Pokémon terms this is huge, there is only one Pokémon that evolves to stage four.
• You will be okay.
• You will benefit greatly from the experience.
• Take the path of no resistance.
• Embrace it.
• Accept it.
• Let it go.
In four to seven weeks it will be behind you and you will wonder why you were so scared in the first place.
I chose to write this article in an attempt to explain what there is to expect from someone who was terrified by the mere word radiation and within 2 months experienced an amazing amount of personal mental growth. I suppose I have experienced a spiritual awakening in a sense. I required a second consultation because after the initial consultation, I was still so afraid of radiation based on an untrue, unexplored thought I had about radiation being scary that I had to talk to the doctor again to be reassured that I was doing the right thing. When that still didn’t happen, I then set up the next appointment anyway and went home and worked on accepting and letting go of my thought. Would I go through radiation therapy again? Yes. Would I be terrified if radiation therapy was offered to me again? No. I know what to expect now. In my newly evolved Pokémon self I choose to live in the present moment; fill my mind with conscious thoughts that make me feel comfortable and happy. Take the path of no resistance. Accept whatever I am experiencing. Know that things that happen have happened because they should have happened and I know that because it did happen, and then I let it go. (Told you I was transformed.)
The past eight years I have had many challenges I used to think of as obstacles in my path, now I just see them as learning experiences that have helped me learn to quiet my mind and enjoy my life more than I ever thought was possible. I’m happier now than I have been in years. Amazing considering 7 months ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and since then have had two surgeries, one post surgery infection, and am finishing up my 3rd week of radiation therapy. But it’s true.
I have met brilliant and compassionate doctors, nurses, radiation therapists, medical assistants; and I have met courageous, beautiful, in control of their cancer patients in different stages of physical and mental transformation.
I have learned how to free my mind from the power of unconscious thought by learning and accepting thought in itself is powerless. I have learned that your mind is an incredibly complicated non-technological wonder. It is so intelligent on its own not only can it make automatic involuntary unconscious, if you will, processes like breathing, blood circulation, cell regeneration, it also makes automatic involuntary unconscious thoughts that aren’t true. I imagine it is done in somewhat the same automatic involuntary unconscious way it does everything else without your consent. Don’t expect me to explain that part I don’t know how it does, I just know that it does. That’s why Buddhists came up with meditation techniques 2500 years ago and these techniques are now seen more and more in the Western culture, and accepted more in Western medicine. Even the motion picture industry has brought meditation practice to characters on the big screen. Through meditation you can calm and quiet your body and mind. Meditation helps me stay alert and focused in the present moment. I now am an active participant in my life as I live each moment of my life as it unfolds, with no resistance, take whatever action I choose is the best action at the time, and then let it go. A good mantra for me is, “This moment, this breath.” Meditation has helped me. It can help you.
I have been meditating for the last 8 years. During meditation I have noticed that thoughts come automatically, unconsciously to my mind as I am still, and focusing on my breath, or sensations I feel in my body. These thoughts have no power in themselves. Just like my initial thought that Radiation Therapy was scary was only an untrue thought with no power. If you do not give any automatic involuntary unconscious thought power but acknowledge it for what it is only a thought it will go away quickly like it came; or you can choose to add negative fuel to the thought and make it become bigger than it is, fearful, and make you feel anxious, afraid and very uncomfortable like I did when I first heard, “Radiation therapy is a recommended treatment for your breast cancer.”
If you’d like to try for yourself the experience that thought comes to your mind in an automatic involuntary unconscious way, then I would recommend you try this simple exercise for at least 5 minutes. Lay down on your back alone in a quiet room. Some where you won’t be interrupted. Wear comfortable clothing. Lay down on a bed or on the floor on a mat. Place 2 pillows under your knees. You can also try this sitting in a chair. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing that and just breathe. Focus on your breath. Breathe in and breathe out. Before long you will notice your mind starts sending you thoughts. Acknowledge the thought as only a thought. If you do not resist the thought, do not judge the thought, do not attach truth to the thought, the thought will go away. Bring your focus back to your breath. I would suggest you try meditating 15 minutes every day. After a short period of time you will feel tremendous benefit. I practice meditation every day. Meditation helps free physical tension as well as mental tension. Meditation makes me feel physically and mentally comfortable. It also helps me become more alert and more effective as I live each moment of my life as it unfolds.
I’m not suggesting that you don’t think any more. I am only suggesting you don’t believe your automatic involuntary unconscious thoughts as truthful. You of course can believe conscious thoughts that you choose. I encourage you to evaluate thoughts that you have and analyze whether or not they are working for you and whether or not they make you feel good, comfortable and happy. For those thoughts that make you feel uncomfortable, scared, anxious, guilty, regretful, I encourage you to let them go by choosing to replace them with positive thoughts that will improve the quality of your life, choosing thoughts that make you feel good and bring you comfortable feelings. Some examples of positive thoughts are:
• I love myself.
• I am beautiful.
• I am perfect just the way I am.
• I am okay.
• I can do it.
• Everything is happening because it should happen, and it is happening for my highest good.
• I am safe.
• I am going through changes that make me feel uncomfortable but I am okay. I am safe.
Every time you think a negative thought replace it with one of the above thoughts or one of your own. If you practice thinking positive thoughts every day for 30 days, it will start to become habit for you and you will be amazed at how much better you feel.
I hope this article is helpful to you. Remember you are amazing just how you are. You can do anything you put your mind to. You can choose to think happy thoughts that make you feel good. You can choose not to resist new experiences, not to become attached to desired outcomes and just go with the flow and you will experience life more fully than you ever new was possible.
I wish you all the best. You can do it!