Guided imagery and meditation were among my closest allies and friends through 16 months of breast cancer treatment and side effects in 2009-2010. As a marriage and family therapist, I was well acquainted with mindfulness meditation, and incorporated it into my life and my work.
In February 2009, I attended a week-long training in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Full of good energy and excitement, I returned home and scheduled a class for clients.
Then, just about when the class was scheduled to start in April, I had a one of those mammograms where a long, cold wait in a little paper gown leads to all kinds of fears and worries taking root. I was sent immediately to an ultrasound tech, then biopsied, and before I knew it, meeting with my surgeon. My head was spinning, and the first thing I asked my surgeon was, "Can I still hold my class for clients?" Wordlessly, he gazed at me and shook his head, "no."
My first mastectomy was followed by intense pain and swelling due to lymphedema and a compromised pectoral muscle. A long journey had just begun. A dear group of friends, all fellow therapists, gave me Health Journey's set of CDs for cancer recovery, and I established a routine of going to sleep with Jon Kabat-Zinn's body scan meditation, and waking up with Belleruth's "Fight Cancer" or imagery for stress or anxiety. My husband joined me in meditating a time or two, and was a constant, calm presence throughout.
I had six very potent chemotherapy treatments, then a bit more than a month off, then 30 radiation treatments. Because of the pectoral involvement, the radiation seared my scar area with pain and burning on a daily basis. I had to wrap my arm and graduate to a variety of compression garments.
For me, meditation and guided imagery (and later, yoga and Qi Gong) kept me in touch with the rest of my body. I felt as if my whole body's resources were gently recruited to counter the injury and agony in my chest and side. By the spring of 2010, I could exercise again, and my body and spirit rejoiced in going swimming and beginning light aerobics and weights. At the end of 2010, I had a second mastectomy (prophylactic, at the recommendation of my oncology team).
Guided imagery didn't "take away" the pain or the loss, but it changed the experience profoundly, putting me on a sort of glide path through many months of ups and downs and uncertainty. Looking back now, my memory of breast cancer is infused with the memory of regular meditation practice and the difference it made in both my physical and mental state.
And the class for clients? All of them who had signed up attended, during a six week break between chemo and radiation.