After My Last Oncologist Visit, I Fell Off A Cliff

I had an oncologist appointment last Thursday that marked four years of being done with chemo for breast cancer.

During my previous onc visit in February, I had been a mess: depressed, stressed and miserable with joint pain and a feeling that my endocrine therapy was taking away from me more than it was giving me. At that point, he let me stop the aromatase inhibitors.

Now, half a year later, I felt so different. My blood pressure was 118/83, much lower than the 130s and 140s systolic numbers I was hitting after stepping into the exam room on previous visits. I was peaceful and more hopeful.

We discussed all sorts of “survivor” things. The joint pain had mostly resolved itself and was no longer a hindrance to exercise, one of the things most important to me. My libido could have been higher and my short-term memory was often lacking, but he felt that could also be attributable to working and sleeping in the same room for the past year and a half, coupled with menopause.

Finally, my doctor noted that it was time for another chest MRI. Not the most comfortable of scans, but I’d done it once, I could do it again.

I would love a pet, even if it means having to clean fur out of my keyboard.

It was not until around noon of the next day that I suddenly plunged off a cliff. I was talking to my daughter and randomly mentioned my willingness to look after any pets she might have in the future when she’s living on her own, were she to travel for work, because where we lived now we weren’t allowed to have pets…

…and I was slammed by a massive wave of sadness and regret.

My thoughts zoomed back to my first chest MRI, stripped to the waist, lying on my belly, arms stretched over my head, frightened and painfully vulnerable. All my focus was on breast cancer and what other horrible realities the MRI would reveal. All I could think of was surviving my upcoming treatments.

That MRI meant that my life was on hold. There would be no progress in my career for the foreseeable future, and no chance of moving into a bigger place, one that would allow us to get a cat (note: I’m a dog person, but I would have been happy with a cat!). Animals have always been a part of my life, but our apartment rules prohibited them. I yearned for the chance to have a pet again. It seemed such a small thing to ask, but even that wasn’t available to us now.

That brief discussion with my daughter underscored a profound feeling of loss and despair. Cancer had robbed me of a lot of things in my life that others took for granted.

This was my view before I realized I didn’t have to sit there.

And as I sat there in the depths, I forgot that time does not stand still, things are always changing, nothing is permanent…and I have inside me everything I need to climb out.

Curiously enough, I had recently attended a talk on managing anxiety aimed at cancer patients and survivors. The counselor who presented the information was herself a breast cancer survivor and she told us a story of doing a follow-up chest MRI, which she found very stressful. Afterwards, she was asked by one of the cancer nurses what sorts of mental tools she had used while in the MRI tube to calm herself down. At that point, she realized that even though she taught these techniques to her patients on a daily basis, she had completely forgotten to use them herself!

I had been sitting in the darkness for a few minutes when I remembered her story. Most importantly, I remembered that I didn’t have to feel this way, that it served no practical purpose and that I wanted be happier. The only reason I felt like this was because these emotional plunges had been a habit of mine.

So I twisted a rope out of all those grounding techiques that I’ve posted about and pulled myself up.

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True, I still didn’t have a cat. But I was able to take a deep breath and realize that at least I had a future. And that future might contain a cat.

Does Mindfulness Make a Difference?

Yes, yes it does.

I am AWARE.

What used to feel like a jumbled mess of emotions and sensations before, now makes sense to me. Intense feelings don’t come at me as quickly as they used to and there’s more space between a stimulus and my response to it.

There is a PAUSE.

I may still feel overwhelmed by circumstances when something unexpected happens, but now I know what’s happening and can pull myself out of it.

That doesn’t mean that I’m perfectly calm and don’t get frightened, anxious or frustrated. I do. You can see that in some of my posts, because I try to be very honest about what I’m experiencing in the moment. But no matter how deeply I dip into fear, I don’t stay there.

I can find the CALM amidst the CHAOS.

When things get intense, I know how to feel into my body. I recognize the physical sensations and I focus on releasing them. Smoothening them out. Breathing through them.

All those abilities were always available to me, but I resisted calming myself. I am aware that on some level I used to feel that anxiety was a necessary way to express my fear; that it was necessary to descend into fear to express my emotional state to others, so that I would be taken seriously. While it sounds odd to read that now, it was only through learning that I was able to soothe myself that I learned I didn’t need to commit to the torture.

I return to the PRESENT.

When I start thinking about fretful things in my past or fearing the possibilities of the future, I can now recognize that my mind has drifted away and I can pull myself into the present, feeling into my bodily sensations. I can break through the dark tumult that’s enveloping me. And suddenly, the noise is gone and I’m standing with my feet firmly planted in my room. I hear the birds and I find peace.

I know I am SAFE.

I have learned how to feel into my body to help it bring me back to the present and away from fearful thoughts.

I realize that there were behaviors that I engaged in during times of anxiety in the past, like pacing back and forth, that actually soothed my nervous system. Just as rhythmic rocking soothes a child. My body was wise and knew what I needed. When, years ago, the burden of my workload chained me to my desk and prevented me from movement, my anxiety skyrocketed and became almost unbearable. That was a clue, but at that point in my life, I didn’t know how to listen to my body.

Now I know what I must do to calm down and I allow myself to do it. But this change didn’t come about suddenly.

It takes PRACTICE.

Practicing mindfulness meditation when I am at peace allows me to build up the habit that carries me through difficult times. I practice daily. Somedays I can focus on my breath perfectly; other times I lose myself in thought shortly after I’ve begun. Regardless, I don’t give up. Even the “bad meditation” days are better than no meditation at all. Each session strengthens my mindfulness habit.

Every day. No matter what. It makes a difference.

Mindful Games I Love: Meditating with “Playne”

I didn’t think I needed a video game to help me mediate.

In the description for “Playne” (on the Steam platform), the developer states that the game is designed to help you establish a meditation habit. While, I thought it would be uninteresting for someone who already had a solid habit, the reviews of the game were very positive and the concept seemed inviting, so I decided to give it a try.

After a week of meditation, saplings have emerged.

I had no idea that it would have such an impact on the quality of my meditation. While I often listen to ambiances (such as through the “MyNoise” app and website) and use guided meditations (“Calm”, “Insight Timer”) or similar auditory cues (“Unwind”), what I didn’t have was a visual representation of my meditation practice as it progresses over time. “Playne” supplies that.

“Playne” has three modes: Story, Sandbox and Evolve. This post is about the Story mode, as that’s the one most people start out with and the one I’m currently working on. Sandbox allows to you build your own meditation spaces and Evolve can only be unlocked after 100 days of meditation (I’m still in the 50s).

You have a small selection of meditations to choose from with the emphasis being on learning to sit with yourself.

The game starts out on a semi-barren island with only a tiny flame in a campfire, a stone lantern, several rocks and Sensei Fox to keep you company. There are both guided and unguided meditations to choose from and as you meditate everyday, the fire grows taller and seedlings sprout and grow. With consistency, you unlock different story chapters, which wise Fox relates, gain the ability to change the weather, and most importantly, grow the island into a beautiful meditation retreat. All it takes is patience.

There is a breath bubble to guide your breathing if you wish, and also a ring that serves as a countdown timer. Both can be turned off if they are distracting or unnecessary.

You are given the ability to chose the length and type of your meditation. In addition, you can regulate inhales and exhales (the length of which you can designate) with a breath bubble, keep track of your meditation time with a minute-ring, enable a journaling option (known as “thought pages”, which you can either keep or burn in the fire if preferred), and mark each instance that you become aware that your mind has wandered (as I enthusiastically wrote about here). There are different places on the island to meditate, and as you accumulate more days, you not only get more weather options to chose from, but also access to elements such as birds, fireflies, Aurora Borealis and butterflies. These are quite lovely and make your “Playne” even more inviting.

Be forewarned that there is the temptation to mark your progress and count achievements. I understand why, from the viewpoint of a game, this is necessary but it does go against the concept of mindfulness. On the other hand, I’m really looking forward to flowers and butterflies!

Now for the potential downside: As much as I enjoy all the offerings, there are a few parts of the game that seem antithetical to mindfulness meditation. The game keeps track of “effort”, you gain “achievements” and note your “progress”. As do other meditation apps/games, “Playne” maintains a record of your streak, and depending on your settings, if you don’t log in to meditate with “Playne” on a given day, you run the risk of having the flame in the campfire go out. While I know that this is done to encourage daily meditation, it is also somewhat problematic, as the whole idea of mindfulness is non-striving. I feel that too much emphasis on achievement in the context of a meditation practice goes against being mindful of the present.

Over 50 days into this, my Playne has grown significantly.

Being of a naturally competitive nature, I was reluctant to turn my practice into one where I would be clinging to achievements. Nonetheless, there are enough positives to this game, and it has benefited my practice so much, that I have been learning to let go. That in itself is a significant improvement!

Yes, it’s unlikely that I will risk breaking my streak, but that’s pressure I can live with.

Reservations aside, I am really impressed with the game. I will write about the Sandbox and Evolve modes when I get to them, and post more images as my “Playne” grows. Additionally, there is a virtual reality (VR) option that I am looking forward to playing with. For anyone starting out with meditation, “Playne” offers a solid platform from which to develop and maintain a consistent meditation habit.

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In addition to “Playne”, I am also using other mindfulness media on a regular basis (my favorite ones are here). That makes for a lot of checking in with electronics, unfortunately. I’ve gotten to the point where I meditate about a half-hour to an hour-plus every day. While it’s a priority in my life, there are days that it’s a struggle to find time for it all. Introducing “Playne” has added to this, and the last thing I need more of in my life is stress.

Sometimes I combine “Playne” with other apps to take advantage of the “Playne” ambiance while doing my favorite guided meditations. More recently, however, I’ve also used “Playne” as a way to emphasize unguided meditation, and that has allowed my meditation practice to mature and expand beyond the confines of a computer program and into the rest of my day. That is one of the greatest benefits of this program and the main reason why I have found it so valuable.