Self-Compassion & Cancer

Loving-kindness meditation

After losing my mother to Ovarian Cancer at age 18, I began to practice Mindfulness and Self-compassion meditation. I felt the healing power of meditation and grew curious about the possible benefits it could have for others. Years later I was in graduate school and working on a study examining the effects of a Loving-Kindness Meditation program for Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. 

Loving-kindness meditation is a practice designed to enhance feelings of kindness and compassion for self and others. It specifically involves the repetition of phrases of positive intention for self and others. The results were exciting and showed clinically meaningful improvements across the board for the participants (Kearney et al., 2013). In loving-kindness meditation practice, a person sits quietly and calls to mind a particular person (e.g., a good friend) for whom they have positive regard, and silently repeats phrases of positive intention for that person.

The phrases invoke a desire for safety, happiness, health, and ease or peace for them. Classically, four phrases are used, such as “may you be safe,” “may you be happy,” “may you be healthy,” and “may your life unfold with ease” (Salzberg, 1995; Kearney et al., 2013). These phrases are changed (e.g., "may I be safe", "may all beings be safe") as the focus shifts from the good friend to the self and others.

Cancer & Self-compassion

After my work with PTSD and Veterans, I began to consider how self-compassion relates to the cancer experience. For those affected by Cancer, the act of directing compassion inward can be challenging. This may be due to the subtle messages we get such as"keep fighting" or "Stay Positive." As a result, some people may develop self-judgments about whether or not they're fighting hard or staying positive.

Self-compassion allows us to take a different stance - one of acceptance of ourselvesin the moment. If you need to go on disability temporarily, require help with childcare, are unable to exercise, that's okay. If you're not feeling "positive", that's fine too. Acceptance and compassion take courage.

A wise person once said, "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle." This couldn't be more true in the case of Cancer. If you find yourself engaging in self-judgment, isolation, or getting caught by negative emotions, I invite you to try practicing Loving-Kindness meditation as described above. You can also simply ask yourself whether or not you would treat a loved one the same way you are treating yourself. If the answer is no, this may be your opportunity to hold yourself a little more kindly.