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Mindfulness Tools for Cancer Patients and Families

By Felina Danalis

In May 2010, while living and working in Greece, I received the call that would change my life. It was from my mother living here in the desert. She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. That call completely altered my life, as I left my career in Europe and moved to Palm Springs to care for her during her cancer journey.

I had started to meditate and learn about mindfulness many years earlier, and had even taught a little. But now it was time to really put what I had learned into practice, for my own sanity of facing the highs and lows of the cancer journey, as well as for hers. If I was to be a good caregiver, I knew I would need to practice what I had learned.

What is mindfulness?   Mindfulness, in the words of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, is about “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment without judgment.”  In other words, it’s about getting out of the past (what happened yesterday) and the future (what might happen tomorrow) and learning how to be with the thoughts, feelings and sensations actually happening in this moment. For those looking to make the most of their time on this planet, it’s a vital practice, and no more so than when one is facing cancer.

Why mindfulness?   I taught my mother how to bring her awareness to her breath and begin to meditate using mindfulness. She gravitated to it as something powerful that she could do to give her a sense of control when facing the challenges that go along with chemotherapy and radiation. She especially used the meditation techniques I taught her when doing CT scans and MRIs that were uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. I used them when I felt the seesaw of emotions coursing through my body. Since then I have taught hundreds of people to do the same, from corporate settings such as Google headquarters to community yoga studios.

Benefits. Anyone facing cancer knows the anxiety that can accompany it. Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to help. In a 2013 Massachusetts General Hospital study, for example, 93 individuals with generalized anxiety disorder were randomly assigned to an 8-week group intervention with mindfulness-based stress reduction or to a control group. The group that went through the MBSR program was associated with a significantly greater reduction in anxiety.

Resources.  Currently I have the pleasure of teaching the mindfulness and meditation workshops that CancerPartners (formerly Gilda’s Desert Cities) offers, at no cost, to everyone in our community who has been affected by cancer. These 2-hour monthly workshops, an important component of CancerPartners’ Healthy Lifestyle Program, allow patients, their loved ones and those grieving the loss of someone to cancer to learn, practice and discuss how mindfulness practices are helping them.

While I wouldn’t ever have chosen for my mother to get cancer, it confirmed my desire to share the benefits of mindfulness and meditation with the world, work I do today here in the Coachella Valley with tremendous gratitude.

Felina Danalis is a mindfulness coach and affiliate member of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard Medical School-affiliated McLean Hospital. Her next CancerPartners mindfulness and meditation workshop, open to the public, is on January 17. Please call (760) 770.5678 or go online to cancerpartners.org.

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