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What is mindfulness?

This Mental Health Awareness Week, Karin explains how mindfulness can help after a breast cancer diagnosis and offers some exercises for you to try.

Mindfulness involves focusing on what’s happening now – on yourself your thoughts and what’s going on around you – and can help improve your wellbeing.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, psychotherapist and counsellor Karin Sieger, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer twice, explains how it can help and offers some exercises for you to try.

What is mindfulness? 

Mindfulness is an attitude, a way of paying attention to yourself and finding a way of regulating your thoughts and emotions. 

It’s based on four simple steps which are all focused on what is happening now (in the moment): 

  • notice 
  • observe 
  • name 
  • accept. 

With this attitude you can steady yourself if you feel overwhelmed, focus on what matters most at any given point in time; feel less stressed and anxious and more balanced and relaxed. I liken it to a thermostat or a flood barrier. 

There’s been a lot of talk about mindfulness recently. It can feel like yet another thing in which to invest a lot of energy before it can be of any use. Well, this isn’t necessarily so. 

How can mindfulness help with breast cancer? 

Mindfulness is a state of mind which we can all acquire and use to support our wellbeing physically, emotionally and mentally. You don't need to become an expert first, before you can benefit from it.  

Having cancer, or specifically breast cancer, is no exception. Our cancer experiences take up a lot of energies, mental focus and can drain us emotionally. It is important to have a few tools to help us create ‘down’ and ‘out’ times, and to replenish and reconnect with who we are.  

Mindfulness can also help during specific times of our cancer treatment – to prepare for surgery, while undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and before or during scans to help with scanxiety. 

A beginner’s guide to mindfulness 

Body scan exercise: Part 1 

This can be done lying down on your back or sitting. Focus on one thing, for example your breath. Pay attention to how it travels in and out of your body. Feel the sensation in your nose, your chest and tummy. 

What about the rest of your body, your toes up to the crown of your head? Any tension? What about your mind? Any thoughts? Do they reoccur, are they joyful or worrying you? As you notice your concentration grow, take in what is happening around you – any noises or smells? Just notice and observe. Take your time to connect with what is happening inside and outside of yourself in that moment. 

When you are familiar with paying attention and getting to know yourself, the next step is to accept. That doesn’t mean being passive. It means accepting reality for what it is, not right or wrong, good or bad. 

Accept what you notice, observe, name and do not judge. Now you’re in a good place to start regulating your thoughts and emotions. With the concentration you have achieved, you’ll feel calm and energised. Your anxiety and stress levels will drop and you can focus better. 

After your treatment has ended, you may carry a lot of emotions about what has happened and what may lie ahead: fear, anger, sorrow, depression, exhaustion, loss of trust and relationship difficulties are not uncommon. 

You may have aches and pains. Is the cancer still there? Will it come back? Will I have to go through all of this again? Will I cope? Will I die? 

You can tailor the following exercise to a situation which fits in best with your own circumstances. 

Body scan exercise: Part 2 

Create regular moments in your day for the body scan exercise. Notice what is happening in your body, mind and heart. Observe it, there’s no rush. 

Give it a name (for example, I feel tense in my shoulders, the breast where I had the cancer hurts, I am frightened and do not know what to do, this is not fair, I feel alone and exhausted). 

Now try and accept what you have found. This does not mean you need to like it and put up with it. You are connecting with yourself; to be frightened is normal, you do not need to fear it; you are learning to understand yourself. 

You will start to feel less anxious and more focused. You will be in a better position to decide what to do next. 

Mindfulness resources 

  1. Be Mindful
  2. University of Oxford Mindfulness Centre 
  3. NHS Choices: What is mindfulness? 
  4. Speak to your GP – they can offer advice and refer you to different services 
  5. BECCA, the Breast Cancer Care App 

Karin Sieger offers cancer counselling for people affected by cancer including family friends, carers and healthcare professionals, locally in West London (UK) and globally (online). You can follow her on Twitter @KarinSieger.

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