How Meditation Helped Me Overcome the Adversity of Cancer
In the Summer of 2012, I was interning in LA, just about to turn 18 and living an unusually healthy lifestyle for a teenager. I woke up at 5 am, worked out every day, and ate super clean; truly the L.A stereotype. Whilst I felt physically great, by striving for tip-top health day after day I succumbed to the illusion that I would never fall unwell. Coupled with the thrill of living in a big, concrete jungle at the time, I was a wide-eyed kid with a false sense of immortality.
However, I would occasionally notice a dull, aching pain in my chest. Working out so often, this was easy to shrug off as ‘DOMS’ (delayed-onset-muscle-soreness). Less easy to ignore was an insatiable itch that seemed to permeate all over my skin, although, this could be negated with antihistamine medication and deemed as “just an allergy”. As time passed and my ignorance lived on, I had recurrent episodes of flu-like symptoms – a runny nose, a sore throat, and the loss of my voice. Never were these symptoms more severe than a regular cold, however.
After finishing my internship, I returned home to the UK, still experiencing the same symptoms as before, and thought maybe it was worth getting a check-up with my doctor. That same day I was referred for an emergency X-ray, and after receiving the results almost immediately, I found myself sitting in a chair in a haematology unit. Being clueless as to what the word ‘haematology’ meant; I was solemnly informed it was a branch of medicine concerned with the study of diseases related to blood.
The severity of my illness quickly dawned on me. That day marked the beginning of my four-year long journey with an advanced stage of blood cancer, known as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
What Is Hodgkin’s Lymphoma?
Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a fairly common cancer that affects the immune system. Lymphocytes, a type of white-blood cell, become unregulated by the body and start dividing at an exponential rate. Without this important regulation these cancerous white-blood cells clump together, forming large masses or tumours at various locations around the body.
A six-month-long chemotherapy regimen named ‘ABVD’ is usually prescribed for treatment, entailing a visit to the hospital once every two weeks to be hooked up to an I.V, containing each of the four chemotherapy drugs, Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine, and Dacarbazine.
Depending on the stage of the disease, about 87 percent of individuals with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma who are treated with ABVD will overcome the disease, and live cancer free after five years. These stats made me feel relatively optimistic, and at the time I really did believe it was highly unlikely that I would need any more treatment. This treatment proved to be an initial success – my cancer went into remission – and so I began to move on with my life as a proud ‘cancer-survivor’.
Currently, no treatment for any type of cancer has a 100 percent success rate. In the case of Lymphoma and ABVD treatment, a number of individuals – the other 13 percent – do not get through the whole five years without the cancer returning.
Facing The Adversity Of My Cancer Returning
Unfortunately, after two cancer-free years, my Lymphoma had relapsed. The following months were a gruelling battle to bring the disease back into remission once again, with each attempt an even more intensive chemotherapy regimen than the last. At the peak of my illness, tumours had spread to lymph nodes in my lungs, and various areas around my torso, and my diagnosis had progressed into stage four, the most advanced stage.
The sheer pressure of these tumours pressing into my throat was so great, that the nerves around my vocal cords took a pretty bad beating, and I permanently lost the ability to produce speech altogether.
I had the great fortune of being looked after at both the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and the University College Hospital in London, where the nurses and doctors did an incredible job of bringing my cancer into remission time and time again. However, it was evident the disease was likely to relapse again, and so the decision was made that I undergo a more rigorous, and long-term cure strategy – an ‘autologous stem cell transplant’ (an ‘ASCT’).
The ASCT was by far the most challenging experience, both physically and mentally, that I would encounter in my Hodgkin’s journey. Typically, an ASCT procedure begins with a chemotherapy regimen known as ‘BEAM’ – a concoction of chemicals so powerful that any trace of a cancerous blood cell is obliterated. A few weeks prior to a stem-cell transplant, healthy stem cells are harvested from a ‘stem cell donor’.
Beginning My Meditation Journey
The physical effects of chemotherapy can feel like an endless hangover, with nausea, vomiting, and physical pain occurring repeatedly over many months of receiving treatment. For this reason, I believe that cancer is more of a mental challenge than a physical one.
I stayed active in the gym between chemotherapies and would take soul-healing strolls in the beauty of the Peak District (despite feeling like throwing up all day). On the occasions I was admitted into hospital, and during my transplant, I took my yoga mat with me and maintained a morning yoga and meditation ritual.
Staying physically active is a great way to create a positive experience with your body, especially when your body seems to be rebelling against you. Exercise proved particularly game-changing for me by providing a sense of normality during my cancer – a feeling that I came to crave. It was only during exercise that I felt any sense of self-control, and like I could transcend the experience of my cancer.
However, the true mental and physical challenges of cancer only became apparent to me during my second relapse. Consequently, I began searching for anything and everything that had any scientific backing of being even remotely ‘relaxing’. I powered through books on the topics of meditation, spirituality, psychology and neuroscience, in addition to starting Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Meditation has always had a bit of a stigma around it, with many people believing that it’s reserved only for individuals with faith, like Buddhism or Hinduism. Others suggest that meditation is counter-productive; a practice reserved for individuals silly enough to want to sit completely still and silent for extended periods.
When you’re facing the worst adversities life can throw at you, you become desperate to try anything that transcends the experience of that adversity. At the beginning of 2016, approaching my stem cell transplant, I became one of these people ‘silly enough’ to meditate.
The stem cell transplant was the final procedure, and the most dangerous. Following treatment with BEAM, the harvested stem cells are then administered into your body. My emotions at this point were jolting around on a rollercoaster ride of dizzying catch-22s and immense excitement for my possible recovery was countered with an overwhelming feeling of terror.
If for some reason this procedure didn’t work, I’d have been left without an immune system and would have a very low chance of survival. But not having the procedure was not an option. As Lymphoma is effectively a cancer of the immune system, it comes with a high risk of catching rare, highly unpleasant infections that healthy individuals can easily fight off. Consequently, I didn’t venture out socially much in this period and became very familiar with sitting around in one place, undisturbed, for long periods of time. Meditation seemed like the obvious progression.
Thanks to the incredible professionalism and care of my healthcare team, my ASCT was a great success. What’s more, half of my vocal cords recovered from the damage, and today all I have to put up with is a permanently raspy voice. Although, on a daily basis I’m asked if I’ve “had a rough night”, or whether I smoke 10 packets of cigarettes a day. I celebrate my ‘bone-marrow birthday’ every year on this date, and I’ve been cancer-free ever since.
Life After Cancer
Facing cancer can be an incredibly stressful experience, disconnecting the mind from enjoying the present moment. Personally, I had difficulty maintaining focus on normal aspects of life – following conversations, focusing on my work – without a flurry of anxious thoughts possessing my attention. Desperate for some relief, I became absorbed in reading books looking for neuroscience-backed ways to improve my attention span. I came across the abundance of existing research showing how our attention can be improved through training. Particularly through the practice of meditation.
My journey into meditation became one of the many ‘Blessings of Cancer’ that I would encounter – a concept often shared amongst cancer-patients whereby the extreme adversity brought about by cancer forces you to change your perspective of the world and change your life for the better. Whilst the reading and talk therapy I participated in was undeniably crucial to my recovery, the act of meditation was something I could continue no matter how sick and battered my body felt.
The junction between meditation and neuroscience is a particularly popular research area right now, and I had my own ideas, too. A few months after my transplant, I enrolled at University College London to study Neuroscience, and my thesis directly addressed how a brain-monitoring technology known as Neurofeedback Assisted Meditation works as an effective tool to train subjects into a high-quality meditative state. Such technology also makes meditation accessible for those who find self-control particularly difficult, including individuals with debilitating psychiatric conditions like Schizophrenia and major depression.
The Benefits Of Meditation
The benefits of practicing meditation greatly influence multiple aspects of our day-to-day lives.
Studies have investigated how easily-adopted daily activities benefit our mental health. Of these, meditation is shown to be beneficial in recovery from anxiety and depression, and those who practice are known to be far less likely to have relapsing episodes of depression later in life. Other studies have shown regular practitioners report a higher overall feeling of wellbeing (as well as performing better on attentional-control exercises, compared to non-practitioners).
If we’re attempting to work deeply on a single task, but become bombarded by information or communication from multiple people, our brain requires vast amounts of energy to sift out distractions and focus attention on the relevant information.
Similarly, when things in life become hectic, our brains require enormous amounts of energy in order to pay attention to the positive and constructive sides of a situation, disengaging attention from doubt and negative outlooks.
Research has shown that being unable to appropriately disengage attention is a common symptom across multiple neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as low mood, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia, where uncontrollable mind-wandering takes over due to excessive default mode network activity.
I personally found this very relatable in 2016, when I realised that my mind seemed to recklessly focus on a never-ending list of negative outcomes of my transplant, without paying attention to the positives.
To this day, I continue to see the wonderful benefit of regular meditation practice in helping me switch off from distractions and negativity and tune into a healthy, focused state of mind. The powerful changes I experienced through meditation even led me to study its benefits as part of my thesis at university, and I remain perpetually excited to learn about the great new developments and discoveries in this field.
Meditation tips For Beginners
Simply not getting distracted may seem overly straightforward on paper, but the difficulty of meditation becomes evident when put into practice.
- The first thing to note is that the pleasure and importance of our practice can powerfully influence how easily we utilise our attentional resources. Yes, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for sustaining or losing focus during meditation; but the decision to do so is based on a variety of factors such as the perceived importance, pleasure, or effort of our meditation. Create a unique ritual for your meditation that is enjoyable, intimate and your own to motivate you to keep on track with a habitual practice.
- Don’t overthink your seating position – this is a brain workout, not a body workout. The idea behind the crossed-legged-yogi malarkey is to take-up a position where you’re able to relax, but simultaneously pay close attention to your meditation objective without drifting off to sleep. When sitting crossed legged on the ground, adding cushions around your back or under your legs is a great way to keep your spine straight, shoulders back, and stopping your legs getting those vibe-killing pins and needles.
- Alternatively, simply lying on the floor can do wonders for reconnecting your mind back to earth. Mildly stimulating your senses with a calming environment will also help you stay relaxed, so having a clean, open space for your practice is useful. You may want to light some earth-scented candles, open some windows to let some noise from the outdoors in, or sit near a window to be bathed in ambient light.
- Although adding music may not be ‘purist-meditation’, it has been demonstrated that soothing music is powerful enough to modulate hormonal activity and reduce emotional stress. The key is to incorporate calming songs that don’t change much throughout – genres such as ambient or drone work really well. I use a playlist I put together on Spotify full of such tracks, and I update it regularly so I don’t hear the same thing every session. You can find the playlist here.
- My final piece of advice is to have patience. The experience of meditation is highly subjective, so no two sessions will ever feel the same. As a result, it’s hard to draw valid comparisons between a great meditation and a bad, distracted one. This is more representative of how our lives change rather than a fault within us. Attempting a breath meditation for 10 minutes, then unintentionally ruminating over what groceries you need to buy for dinner later can (and will) happen. Reminding ourselves of the importance of commitment to daily practice can be a powerful motivator, and may be necessary to encourage the extra effort required for a particular practice.
I hope that my story and insight resonates with you on some level. If anything I have written sounds familiar, or you want to ask questions about a particular topic, or maybe you’d like to challenge what I have written (critique is a wonderful thing, after all), do please reach out to me at email@example.com or through my Instagram @billy_riley