Patients often feel betrayed by their bodies after a cancer diagnosis. Because it is your own cells that make up the cancer it can leave you feeling as though you are fighting with yourself. Add to the fact that cancer treatments often take a significant toll on the body that can have ripple effects for many years to come, it is not surprising that many of the patients that I treat share with me that they struggle with body image. These challenges with self-image are not just due to the physical changes that have taken place but also because they view themselves in a different way.
Many of my patients have expressed that their relationship with their body has changed. For some, their favorite feature has been distorted or overshadowed by scars or other physical changes resulting from surgery or radiation. For others, it is a sense of mistrust in their own human condition that has left them feeling shaken and unsure. Whether you are able to clearly explain what has changed or if you simply feel your relationship with your body has changed, mindfulness can help bring you to a greater sense of peace and wholeness.
How to Begin to Use Mindfulness to Change the Relationship
The goal of mindfulness is to learn to pay attention in a different way, which can allow you to begin to appreciate that while things have gone wrong in how your body makes cells, many things have also gone right. Mindfulness is a gateway to the mindset that allows for this new appreciation of your body that does so many amazing things just to keep you upright and walking around each day. From pumping blood to sending complex signals from the brain to tell you to move, the body is a dynamic and amazing thing if you can take the time to appreciate it in that way. If you can make time to try these different exercises, you can find that over time you can change your experience of your body to both understand and acknowledge what has changed and appreciate and value all that your body has done and can continue to do.
Here are some exercises to try:
The body scan is a traditional way to learn to become aware of the experiences of the body in a mindful way and is a great place to start. I have included two different versions of this exercise as a way to begin.
Another great exercise to try is one that I have mentioned in other posts because it helps with both difficult emotions and bodily sensations.
This is a great exercise by Tara Brach that is focused on finding a home and happiness in your own experience moment to moment.
Practicing mindfulness regularly can help in the process of reexamining and reworking your relationship with your body. It will not happen in one sitting but will develop over time. So, have patience with yourself. If you find that you are having challenges related to body image or your sense of self related to your cancer experience that are interfering with your day-to-day functioning then working with a therapist may help you to address those difficulties in a safe and nurturing environment.
I sincerely hope that you have found this post helpful. Please look for more upcoming blogs in this series on mindfulness and cancer both on our website and on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/rowancenterla.
Dr. Stephanie Davidson is a licensed, clinical health psychologist and co-founder of the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine specializing in the use of cognitive-behavioral, humanistic and existential approaches to treat patients with a range of medical and mental health challenges. She has a strong interest in acceptance and commitment therapy and other mindfulness-based interventions to heal the body and mind. Her focus is on collaboration with the goal of assisting patients in adjusting to difficult experiences and achieving a greater sense of well-being, balance and peace in their lives.