“Cancer may take away all my physical abilities. But it cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul,” said Jimmy Valvano, the legendary college basketball coach who led North Carolina State to its first NCAA championship victory in 1983. He said this two months before passing from cancer in 1993. Whether a sports fan or not, one must admire his optimism and his statement’s courage and truth-value.
Weak Body, Willing Spirit
Last semester, I implemented a course at my university entitled, “Religious & Spiritual Perspectives in Healthcare.” Engaging our spirituality impacts our physical health for the better. The last two decades have seen a boom in empirical research supporting the the Mind-Body Connection, once laughed-off by many scientists. Rather than referring to the Mind-Body Connection, I suggest we refer to the “Mind-Body-Spirit Connection.”
When I battled cancer as a young child (from age 5 to 7), I relied heavily on my own spirituality. The majority of my medical care team encouraged my family’s use of spiritual practices because they saw a plethora of useful adjuvants to supplement traditional medical intervention in my own healing from cancer. They recognized this back in 1994, when research into psychoneuroimmunology (the ways in which our mental and spiritual outlooks and practices affect our immune-responsiveness) was just in its infancy.
While many physicians were skeptical about spirituality having real effects in cancer-healing, today, we see those who doubt its effectiveness are either irresponsible or not adequately informed. It is now proven that “negative hormonal changes associated with spiritual practices include those to cortisol…” (Newberg, 2014) which is commonly known as the “stress hormone.” Stress yields anxiety, depression, and hypertension – all of which have negative immune-system effects and become impediments to healing, particularly in cancer patients. Another study notes that “stress diminishes white blood cell response to viral infected cells and cancer cells” (Littrell, 2008). This leaves little room for doubt about how spirituality and mindful meditation can assist one’s recovery from cancer in tandem with modern medical interventions. Let’s turn our focus now to the spiritual and mindfulness practice I frequently suggest to my cancer-impacted clients in spiritual direction and holistic lifestyle coaching.
Our 10 – 80 – 10 & Square Breathing
Cancer naturally arouses anxiety, often typified by a fear of things to come. Conversely, when we are depressed, we tend to look back. A vast majority of cancer-affected persons spend much time focused on what is to come in their experiences or in looking at the good from their past they feel cancer has stolen away. Both of these mental focuses displace attention from the present, resulting in either heightened states of anxiety or depression.
The “cure” to alleviating the negative impacts of such heightened anxiety or depression is mindfulness, meditative practice. Mindfulness focuses on the present. Ideally, our mental attentiveness should be 10% focus on the past (learning from our mistakes), 10% on the future (preparing for the things ahead), and 80% on the present. One mindfulness practice I suggest is “Square Breathing.” It allows us to center ourselves using physical “anchors” of both sight and breath. We can visualize a square in front of us or create one to look at. From there, we fall into a rhythm of inhalation – hold – exhalation – hold following the square.
Lectio Divina – Divine Reading
While mindfulness is more secular in philosophy, I also make use of explicitly spiritual practices in assisting my clients. One of my favorites comes from Benedictine monastic tradition. “Lectio Divina” is Latin for “Sacred Reading.” It need not focus on any particular sacred text (e.g.: The Gospels in Christianity; the Qur’an in Islam, etc.), but can focus on spiritual books – even poetry or whatever one finds enlightening.
Set aside 30 minutes or so for your immersive reading experience. Find a place where you feel comfortable enough to encounter the Divine as you know it.
1. Select something you would enjoy reading 3 – 4 times over. Be open to seeing things differently; to “hearing,” feeling, or sensing different perspectives in your reading.
2. Clear your consciousness of anything unrelated to the reading before you. Then read carefully and intentionally. Read it again, and again.
3. Sit back and reflect on what you’ve read. Consider how the Divine has touched your heart, your spirit, your consciousness through these words.
4. Respond to the thoughts and emotions the Divine has placed in your heart during your reading and reflection. You can respond out loud, journal or write letters, or merely think.
5. While this spiritual exercise is a beautiful way of encountering the Divine in the ‘here-and-now,’ it can be an emotional. Spend 10 minutes resting in the Presence of holiness. Allow the Divine to restore your weary spirit.