Walking Mindfully: My Journey with Breast Cancer

Living with breast cancer has opened up many questions for Kimberly Holman. Here she shares her evolving thoughts about diseases and the choices we all must make in our lives. 

Photo © iStockPhoto.com/YinYang

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about manifesting or the bringing about of a desired end through intention, affirmations, and the power of positive thinking.

I’m particularly interested in this concept because I just completed a long treatment process for breast cancer involving two surgeries, six rounds of chemo, 33 doses of radiation, and a targeted-therapy infusion drug I received every three weeks for a year. Having completed this process, I’m naturally curious about how to own my newly acquired “breast cancer survivor” identity while promoting a sense of well-being in my body.

The assertion I often hear is that we create our own reality, and by harnessing powers hidden deep within the mind, we are capable of altering destiny. Therefore, we can heal ourselves and our world.

I admit a part of me desperately wants to believe I have the power to heal, but I’m haunted by a question. If it is literally true we create our own reality, does that mean I somehow spawned cancer cells in my body? In fact, one of my dearest friends said as much to me. Frankly, I don’t think any cancer patient wants to hear this.

So I find myself facing a paradox. I don’t want to be faulted for having had this disease, but I do want to be empowered with the ability to overcome it. I don’t know how I can have it both ways.

One day, I was digging into the depths of my turmoil and pain during a visit with my oncology social worker, Ingrid Whitaker, a brilliant woman who lovingly helped me through these struggles. My mind bounced back and forth between the conviction I was feeling about getting well and the uncertainty that tormented me.  I began to consider what’s involved in the manifestation of a disease and that’s when it hit me.

If we look closely at the development of any disorder, we will see numerous causes and conditions come into play. There is no way one person can mitigate all the biological, psychological, environmental and even spiritual componentsof a disease process. There is only so much a person can control. And come to think of it, isn’t that what all this business about manifesting is really about?

More than ever, we humans yearn for control. It is a natural response when things get out of hand; and considering all the economic, political and environmental issues we’re facing on this planet, I think it is safe to say our situation is critical. I believe that’s why so many of us are thinking about how to change our destinies on both a personal and global level. But do we really have the power to alter the course of events? It is an important question as well as an interesting experiment.

It seems to me destiny boils down to a series of choices we make. Receiving medical treatment for cancer was one of the most difficult and yet self-apparent choices I have ever made, especially knowing how risky and arduous it would be. It was definitely my attempt to change the course of events in a situation that was for me—critical.

That’s why I’ll never forget the afternoon I went to meet my radiation oncologist. My first stop was with the nurse who checked me in. She was reading through the grocery list of descriptors for my particular cancer from the biopsy reports.

“Oh, this is good,” she said.

Wondering what part of any of this could possibly be good, I asked her to clarify. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “We know how to treat this.”

“We know how to treat this,” became my mantra for the next several months.

The first week of each chemo cycle was always the toughest. I would lie helpless on my bed and watch myself plummet once again into the black hole of despair. An iron weight pressed against my body. Sometimes I just wanted a piece of toast or a cup of tea, but the kitchen was a million miles away.

Those chemicals really got inside my brain. I couldn’t think straight or reason with myself. I was sure the cruel hand of fate had targeted me. All my good intentions walked right out the door. My generally positive outlook was replaced by the dark beast of self-loathing. I missed my mother.

So in looking at the question of whether we humans can alter destiny, I do think a positive mental attitude can help us reach our goals. Yet, what I discovered during my treatment process is that attitude and intention break down in the face of struggle. Life happens.

So I began to consider that maybe my best bet is to walk mindfully through the decisions I make each day, but I notice that developing a capacity for mindfulness and awareness takes practice. Even after years of meditating, I still find myself reacting, acting out of habit, speaking without really thinking, and sleep walking my way through the day. I have come to accept this as the human condition out of which human experiences arise. Disease is simply one of those experiences.

Who among us would tell the children on a cancer ward they are responsible for the tumors growing in their bodies? Can we even fathom such a thing? It makes me wonder then why we sometimes hold adults accountable.

The way I see it, my disease can be the impetus of a much larger healing process because it provides me with an opportunity to be more authentic. I now engage more fully in life, with all its hardships and conundrums, while examining the choices I make with open curiosity. I have come to realize any past mistakes that may have contributed to the development of my illness are history—I’m better off leaving them in the past and moving forward.

So while breast cancer lovingly invites me to consider what I might need to change in my life, the global crisis is an invitation on a much larger scale. It asks all of us to consider the choices we make and how we can change our relationship to the environment and each other. In the end, the same is always true. There will be some factors we have control over, some factors we do not have control over, and some things we don’t even know about. So we each do what we can with the knowledge and resources at our disposal.

Part of me would still like to have complete control over the events of my life though. That part doesn’t like to admit there may be limitations to what I can know and do. Then there is this other part of me. This part feels a complete loss of control in the face of this disease. This part actually needs to recognize and accept limitation. Otherwise, I could make myself crazy with all the “what ifs” and “yeah buts.” Because let’s face it. Sometimes even the best executed plan fails.

Does that mean I should give up on the idea of manifesting wellness? Of course not. Physical disabilities notwithstanding, it is clear that the body follows the mind. All I have to do is raise my hand to know that. I affirm there is power in both my intention and attention. Therefore, I will do everything in my power, like working out at the gym, eating good food, composting, and riding my bike, in order to create health in myself and on this planet. I just do it knowing I will never have complete control over all the various causes and conditions that come into play in the effort.

Knowing this—I get to relax a little. I get to loosen my grip and move with the flow of events as they unfold without trying to convince myself I have to control everything, as if I could.

Yes, I admit that I sometimes feel like a walking cancer time bomb. The uncertainty of my situation can be excruciating. But I look at it this way. Certainty might mean certain death, whereas uncertainty carries unlimited potential.

In the end, I think the real secret is in how I handle what comes my way. By accepting there will be times when I lose control over the circumstances of my life, I will be less disillusioned when it happens. Who knows? Perhaps by relaxing with what is, I will discover a greater ability to shape what is.

If there is anything to this idea of manifesting, I would say a key factor is gratitude. Gratitude is probably the only magic wand there is. I notice how things have a way of working themselves out when I’m appreciative of all that is. That is why I think one of the best things we can do for this planet is to be perpetually grateful for all the treasures that are stored on it.

What I’ve come to understand as a newly inaugurated breast cancer survivor is this: allowing a greater good to open up through me is more beneficial than expecting life to meet my personal demands. It is healthier for me to let go of my need for control in order to walk mindfully in the way of gratitude. And while my destiny will unfold with every step I take, the truth will manifest itself in time.