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Cancer, Mindbody, and Living, Breathing Stories

As Living, Breathing Stories, we are composed of innumerable elements that blend together to create the “I” we inhabit at any given time. Some of these elements we define as positive, and some not so much. Yet our experience of reality depends in large part, if not entirely, on the thoughts we think about these elements—the definitions we assign to things and experiences, the beliefs we hold about anything, the meanings we bestow on seemingly random events—and how our physical bodies respond to those thoughts.

Take serious illness, for instance. What roles does our mindbody play in it? What are our stories about it? How do they affect the ways we treat it or live with it? Do they tell us to resist at all cost, to be grateful for the lessons it teaches, or…what?

This subject has been on my mind for a couple of weeks now, since I will soon be a two-time cancer survivor. Breast cancer in 2011, and now thyroid cancer, with a thyroidectomy coming up soon. Compared to what many women go through, my experience with breast cancer was a walk in the park—lumpectomy and radiation only, a rare but easily treatable kind caught before it spread, plus good insurance and lots of emotional support. For all of this, I am grateful still.

What might have been the cause of this cancer? Even though I’ll never know for sure, my curiosity sent me to explore.

First up was the usual explanation—it’s in the genes. My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer, and my mom is a survivor (many other family members have had cancer, too—father, grandfather, sister, aunt, probably others). So, as the current cultural belief has it, breast cancer appeared in me because of my genetic inheritance. Maybe so. Yet, epigenetics tells us that genetic determinism (or: you got the gene, you get the illness) exists only in a very small percentage of cases. Instead, gene expression—genes turning “on” or “off”—is due much more to our conscious and subconscious thoughts (they are energy, remember), so having a particular gene does not mean the associated illness will inevitably appear. Perhaps breast cancer genes in my DNA turned on because of my unconscious belief that as part of this lineage I, too, would experience this disease.

But I wanted to explore other possible causes as well. Since everything is energy, including thoughts, next I talked with a gentle, skilled energy healer. She believed that the tumor, which was in my left breast and near my heart, was the manifestation of the traumatic emotions (embodied thoughts) I experienced after my husband’s serious accident about eight years before. Was this true? I’ll never know, but given the intensity and duration of those emotions, which caused physical, stress-related heart issues, it felt like a distinct possibility.

(Note that this does NOT mean I believe I consciously caused this disease in myself—nor does anyone else. Instead, it means that at the very deepest levels, our bodies work in mysterious ways still incomprehensible within the current story told by allopathic medicine. There is good evidence, ancient and modern, to back up what I write here, and you are free to choose the particular story you believe and live.)

Now thyroid cancer has made its appearance. I’ve read that it might be related in some way to breast cancer. Genetics again? Maybe. But the thyroid is in the area of the fifth chakra, which is all about communication, voice, creativity. I have long spoken and thought about how to find my “voice,” to speak my truth, to communicate from my heart (as I am doing here) instead of being afraid to share what is there. Maybe the cause is a blocked or unbalanced fifth chakra. I don’t know, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility.

There could be any number of other causes, too, none of which I will ever know for sure. I simply want to remain open to possibilities because that offers more opportunity for healing and restoration of many kinds.

I am fortunate and grateful that a skilled surgeon will remove my thyroid, along with the cancer, and that pharmaceutical options can replace the missing hormones. Yet I am also pursuing other avenues of healing my mindbody as well. One is working with a Reiki master to help balance my energy and restore physical and emotional equilibrium. In addition, a dear friend, a psychologist who has done medical hypnosis for more than thirty years, has created a personalized audio session that carries me through a skillful, loving surgery free of complications, complete and easy recovery, and quick stabilization of my thyroid hormone replacement. I listen to it each morning to bring this desired, imagined reality into actual reality, using the awesome power of my mindbody (which you have too, by the way).

In meditation, I am also listening to my heart for any messages it might have for me. And in relying on the 40,000 neurons, the wisdom, and the spiritual insight it contains, I’m also listening with my heart, too, bypassing my brain and its rationalizations and delusions in order to sense the deeper reality that lives there.

Of course, I am journaling about all of this, in whatever ways feel best when I sit down to write.

I cannot know the ultimate outcome of this new chapter—or maybe just a long paragraph—of my Living, Breathing Story. Right now, it feels positive. It has already reminded me, yet again, of all the love and support that always surrounds me. It may hold an unseen gift (this has happened before with other difficult experiences) or offer a lesson that will serve me well (so has this). Those things might be wrapped up in dire or difficult circumstances that will require fortitude and faith. Time will tell. As my future unfolds, I am doing my best to maintain my Living, Breathing Story in ways that are mindful, self-compassionate, and grateful. Always grateful.

You Are Not a Mind and a Body

You are a mindbody. Or a bodymind. The point is, your mind and body are not two separate entities sort of stacked on top of one another. They exist together as one entity, with inseparable connections:

“There is a complex relationship between thoughts, moods, brain chemistry, endocrine function, and functioning of other physiological systems in our bodies. While an in-depth discussion of this relationship is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that our thoughts can actually trigger physiological changes in our body that affect our mental and physical health. Basically, what you think affects how you feel (both emotionally and physically). So if you increase your positive thoughts, like gratitude, you can increase your subjective sense of well-being as well as, perhaps, objective measures of physical health (like fewer symptoms of illness and increased immune functioning).” http://www.umassd.edu/counseling/forparents/reccomendedreadings/theimportanceofgratitude/

It’s so easy to let our thoughts get the best of us, for better or—usually—worse. We get so trapped in our thought loops and ruminations that we frequently don’t realize we’re having the same not-so-positive thoughts yet again. But I as said in the previous post, if we can learn to recognize physical feelings connected to certain thoughts, we can use that recognition as a signal that there’s something we need to be aware of.

Years ago when I was still working in Corporate America, my job was so stressful I started having agonizing headaches that knocked me flat (along with being horribly depressed). But one day I realized I was unconsciously tensing my neck and scalp muscles so tightly, a pounding headache resulted. I learned to recognize the physical feeling when it started and immediately consciously relaxed those muscle. Headaches gone!

But I was still working there and still intensely stressed. So next I unconsciously began tensing my neck and shoulder muscles so tightly I could not turn my head. I had to turn my entire torso to look behind me—not so good for driving! I went to physical therapy for a while and felt better–for a while. Thankfully, I soon was able to leave Corporate America behind and become self-employed.

Sometime after my liberation, I read through one of the journals I kept during my last years at that job. During the time of the physical therapy, I flowed right through writing a sentence that did not strike me as significant until I re-read it years later: “I think I’ll just sit tight until something better comes along.” Wow! I almost yelped in recognition! In hindsight, I could see how this unconscious metaphor sent my body a message I did not recognize until much later and how my body acted accordingly.

Since then, I’ve learned to recognize certain physical signs that I’m stressed, and once that happens, I can (often) consciously relax whatever part of my body is sending the signal. Amazingly, this calms my entire mindbody; even if the stressful thoughts are still present, they feel more distant and manageable. I also meditate regularly, to encourage my brain toward more calm feelings more of the time.

Now, I don’t mean you should use this skill to ignore or squash painful or difficult thoughts. They do have to be dealt with in healthy ways—and if they are not, they will find a way to bite back! But if noticing certain physical sensations tunes you into your thoughts, you have one more tool to help you stay happier and healthier.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL     

It’s so easy to live in our heads and be disconnected from our bodies. It’s more common than we realize. Once you get the hang of recognizing the connections, though, you will be surprised by how deep those connections are and how telling they can be about your well-being.

See if you can recall a time when you realized your physical state was a reflection of your thoughts. For instance, when your thoughts were angry, what was going on in your body? When you were happy, what were the physical sensations you felt? Write about this for 15 minutes or more, doing your best to describe your emotions as well as your physical sensations.

Your Thoughts Reshape Your Brain

Really. They do.

The traditional belief was that our brains continued developing until a certain age—hitting the high point somewhere in our 30s—but from then on, the possibility for change ended, leaving us sliding slowly downhill into neural oblivion.

Fortunately, new research has shown that our brains are capable of changing for our entire lives. This capacity, called neuroplasticity, means that even while our brains do slow down with age, they are capable of being shaped and reshaped for our entire lives. (In the case of brain injury, it is often possible for new areas of the brain to take over for the injured portions. See The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Normal Doidge.)

When we learn something new, the old neural pathways are overlaid with new ones (that’s the physical change in the brain), creating new patterns of thought and behavior. While we typically do this unconsciously, the cool thing is that we can do it on purpose for our benefit!

As Dr. Rick Hanson says, “There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape—will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest  your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.” (Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time)

Your thoughts create physical changes not only in your brain but in your entire body, including your gene expression. In a very simplified explanation: When you focus on stressful thoughts, your body produces stress hormones, like cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline, that stress your body and your brain. If you stay stressed over time, this causes illness. When you focus on peaceful thoughts, your body produces soothing chemicals, like serotonin, that alleviate stress and can help you and your brain stay healthier. (More on this in the next post.)

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

Three parts to this one. It will take a little while but I think it will be worth it.

  1. What is a negative (but not traumatic) thought you frequently tell yourself? Write it down in a sentence or two, and then write in more detail about it for 3 minutes. Pay close attention to how you feel in your body and where you feel it. What does this reveal to you?
  2. Give yourself a few minutes to release the previous exercise. If you like, give yourself a hug, stand up and walk around. Let your attention to it flow away. Now recall a positive thought you frequently tell yourself. Write it down in a sentence or two, and then write about it in more detail for 3 minutes. Pay close attention to how you feel in your body and where you feel it. What does this reveal to you?
  3. Write for at least 15 minutes about what you learned about how thoughts create reactions in your body. If you can become familiar with the feelings associated with certain thoughts, you can learn to stop or release the thoughts that cause you stress and keep going with the ones that leave you feeling calm and peaceful.

Welcome to A Living, Breathing Story!

Thanks for stopping by.

You know you have a life story. You’ve heard that many times. But what if there’s much more to it? What if, instead of having a story, you are a story—a Living, Breathing Story?

Stop and think about that for a minute. Even with little awareness of the process, over your lifetime you have woven together innumerable threads to create the Story that is the “I” you inhabit right now. Just as an author creates her characters’ reality with the words she commits to the page, you create your own experience of reality depending on how you think about it—and how you think you think about it. Furthermore, your thoughts constantly create reactions and responses within your body, including, of course, your brain and genetic code, causing changes to your physical being. In a very real sense, what you make of your Story makes you: Yes, you are an ever-changing, interactive, living, breathing Story.

It is this Story that creates your experience of reality—your personal account of who and what you believe yourself to be, which determines how you experience life. While it is based on the actual events and experiences of your life, your Story actually springs from the explanations you invent to describe them and their effects on you. “We tell some of the best stories to ourselves. Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized.” (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human)

You are a Living, Breathing Story because of the intimate, inseparable, instantaneous connections between your thoughts and your body’s reactions to those thoughts. This process is so innate and automatic that, most of the time, you don’t even realize it’s playing out in your never-ending stream of consciousness, every moment creating physical, emotional, and mental reactions within you. But as you discover more about your Story and how you create it, you can learn to use this ability on purpose and with awareness, becoming more empowered and adding more joy and ease to your life as a result.

I’ve come to this concept of “Living, Breathing Story” over several years, gradually learning and adding more information. It’s exciting for me to look at myself and the world through these new lenses. And I’m excited to share what I have learned with you.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

At the end of each blog post (or most of them, anyway), I’ll add a journaling exercise for you. Like this one.

One of my favorite quotations about how we create our own experience of reality comes from Antoine de St.-Exupery, who wrote The Little Prince: “We live not by things, but by the meanings of things.” Things—material objects as well as personal or cultural concepts—have no meaning in themselves. We give them meaning based on our own Story, and these meanings further create our Story.

For instance, a wine glass is simply a vessel to hold a beverage. No big deal in and of itself. But I have the last two remaining wine glasses given to my mom and dad on their wedding day and which they used for decades’ worth of special occasions. When I bring them out on my special occasions, I feel deeply connected to my long-deceased father and my mom now in a nursing home hours away. These glasses are precious objects that hold much love and many memories for me. In this way, they help to create my experience of reality.

This same concept holds true for the way we think about ourselves too. When I was younger, I was shy and that meant I would never dream of speaking up in a crowd of people. Years later, I’ve grown comfortable speaking to groups of people, small or large. I’ve discovered I’m just enough of a ham to enjoy it! I changed my thoughts about myself and so changed my experience of reality.

For your journal: What about you? What is something that helped make you who you are today—or, in Story language, helped to create your Story? There are two ways you can do this.

  1. Choose one of your possessions that holds great meaning for you and connects you to someone, represents a special time in your life, or reminds you of a success or even a loss. Write for at least 15 minutes about its meaning for you and what your life would be like without that which it represents for you.
  1. Think of how you have changed your thoughts about yourself over the years, as I did with my shyness. What is your old Story and how did it morph or evolve into a new one? Write for at least 15 minutes on this shift in your perception of yourself.