Yesterday I was at the Tom Baker Cancer clinic, where I go every third Friday to have blood tests and meet with my Oncologist. I greet that day with trepidation because I have difficult veins and until yesterday it usually takes at least two technicians and two to three tries to get a cooperative vein. I also find the day difficult because I fail my blood tests and have to have them re-done again early Monday morning, which means going through the awkward and often painful procedure once again.
Last time I did pass my blood tests on the Monday morning. Those three extra days allowed my cells to recover to minimal levels, and I could proceed with chemo as planned. I expect it will be the same this Monday. Funny how something I don’t relish also is something that I now don’t want to miss doing. I have become attached to staying on schedule because of course that schedule has lots to do with my health and it brings me steps closer to being finished. This attachment of course increases my anxiety.
The reason I mention this is that no matter how together we think we are, no matter how accomplished we believe we have become at “acceptance,” any number of small, large and unexpected things can catch us off guard. It is enormously helpful to come back to something practical during those moments.
What helps me is breathing. Actually it is noticing my breath. Of course we breathe whether we notice or not. But for me, whether I am in the dentist chair, the lab chair or the chemo chair, anyplace where anxiety is tightening the noose of fear, re-directing my attention to my breath helps me.
The good thing about breath is that it is always with us, wherever we go. I don’t have to remember to bring it with me, just to notice that it is a faithful companion who is with me always. As most of us know when we are anxious or afraid we often hold our breath and this can make pain and/or fear worse. Anticipatory fear and anxiety even increases the side-effects of chemo, according to my oncologist.
So what do I mean by noticing my breath and what do I do? As an example, yesterday, when the lab technician came to my chair I gave her the usual pre-amble about my rolling veins. And then I turned my head slightly away and went back to noticing my “in breaths,” which was what I had been doing before she arrived. When my attention drifted off I gently brought it back to noticing the feeling of my breath as it passed through my nostrils. That was my job. She had hers.
For her part, she had put a hot pack on my hand for about five minutes, to help the veins “come up.” She asked me to place my hand at the end of the chair arm so that my fingers could hold the underside of the arm, which helped to keep my hand steady and give her a secure place to work. In what seemed like seconds, she said, “I’m finished.”
“You are?” I exclaimed. I nearly kissed her it was so painless and so quick.
For my part I had practiced with my breath. What I did and do is when I find myself in situations that produce anxiety, I take a couple of deep breaths to help me relax and to remind me that I will use my breath to assist me with this difficult event. Next I bring awareness to the act of breathing and it is here that I begin to notice the sensation of the breath as it flows in and out. The program we are currently taking, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, helps develop this skill and the capacity to stay in the moment with what is, rather than gritting my teeth, imagining the worse, and galloping off in my mind to the “what if’s” and “maybe’s.”
Some of the evidence- based health benefits of this program include slowing the heart rate and decreasing blood pressure, as well as decreasing stress, anxiety and confusion. For my part, focusing my attention on my breath allows me to stay anchored to the present.
Whether I pass my blood tests on Monday or not, life goes on. Whether I have chemo on Monday or Wednesday, life goes on. It is what it is. No amount of anxiety or worry can rush the process. Bringing my attention back to my breath during a procedure, or noticing the robin singing in the crab-apple tree when I take a walk, or really tasting the delicious bittersweet fallen chocolate soufflé that I actually baked last night for dessert, helps me to live the moments I am in rather than miss today while worrying about tomorrow.
We note that the realization that we are no longer with the breath, is itself AWARENESS, and so we are already back in the present moment. Importantly, we do not have to dispel or push away, or even remember whatever it is that was preoccupying the mind the moment before. We simply allow the breath to once again resume its place as the primary object of our attention, since it has never not been here, and is available to us in this very moment as in any other.
From Arriving at your own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness. # 46 Jon Kabat Zinn
Spiritare: to breathe
When we breathe, we respire. We literally re-spirit the body. All fine things must breathe, even red wine. Victoria LaBalme