Friday, 13 February 2015

Mindfulness and Chemotherapy

I've only really been practising mindfulness for a very short time. I'm just a beginner, but it is very useful to me.

It began last September when I picked up a leaflet about the Vajravarahi Centre in Preston, seeing that they did a free half hour relaxation session on Friday afternoons.

I was worried about how tired I was feeling all the time, and about my various aches and pains, so I felt it might help.

I ventured in, greeted by an enormous statue of the Buddha facing the doorway. I was directed to the meditation room, where we removed our shoes before entering. This is a beautiful room, decorated with some amazing statues. I was pleased to see everyone was sitting in ordinary chairs, rather than having to sit cross legged on the floor!

As I attended these sessions, I learned a few very simple techniques: relaxing the body, focussing on the breath, visualising problems and intrusive thoughts as black smoke being exhaled from the body, visualising a ball of nourishing white light that can be breathed into the body, and shifting the seat of consciousness from the head back into the heart.

The session was followed by tea, the chance to eat a vegetarian meal and have a chat.

In between the first time I attended and the second time, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, admitted to hospital, had an operation to remove the tumour and create an ileostomy. After I was discharged from hospital, having this session to attend became a motivation to get out of the house, an opportunity to meet people and I had an inkling that what I was learning would be useful to me.

Sure enough it was.

Although the operation had removed all the tumour and there was no sign of any metastasis, I was put on 12 cycles of precautionary chemotherapy. In preparation for this, I had to have a 'PICC line' inserted, this is a thin plastic tube that is pushed up a vein in the arm, till it almost reaches the heart, so it can deliver the chemotherapy drugs directly into the body. Once it's inserted it lasts for the full course of the treatment.

Thinking about a plastic tube being pushed up your vein toward your heart is a fairly alarming and intrusive thought, and the process of insertion causes some discomfort. I used the technique of focussing on my breathing as a way of keeping control, and found that it worked well. I was able to get myself into a zone of relaxation and calmness as the procedure was carried out.

The first time I had chemo, the PICC line didn't work; it had a tiny hole that the chemo fluids leaked out of, so the line was pulled back out, and I was back in to have it reinserted the next day. The nurses remembered how I'd coped last time and encouraged me to use the same techniques again. I found these techniques worked even better the second time round. Since then I've had no trouble with my line.

Every fortnight I spend a day at the Rosemere Unit in Preston getting chemo. I've used the 3 hours I spend attached to a chemo drip as a chance to practice mindfulness.

On my 8th session, this Tuesday, something different happened. As the oxaliplatin was introduced, I sneezed a couple of times, then felt my scalp itching. Next minute it felt as if my scalp was on fire, the palms of my hands turned bright red, and red blotches and an itchy rash came up all over my arms and belly. My chest tightened painfully. It felt as if someone was sitting on me!

I was having an anaphylactic reaction to the medication. It's where the body's immune system runs out of control. I knew this can be potentially life threatening. I also knew I was in the safest place to be having such a reaction. Literally within seconds of the symptoms showing, the nurses and a medic seemed to appear from nowhere, they had surrounded me, stopped the oxaliplatin, were giving me hydrocortisone, paracetamol and piriton, checking my blood pressure and breathing and hooked me up to a heart monitor.

As this was happening I remembered the technique of shifting the seat of consciousness back toward the heart. This was a safe place for me to be, where I could observe what was happening to my body and around me, calmly, without panicking. I think a combination of using this technique and the calm competence of the team around me, particularly the way the young oncologist took charge meant that I never felt in any real danger. The drugs worked quickly, the pain subsided and the blotches began disappearing rapidly. Within 20 to 30 minutes I was back to normal. The team remarked on how calm I had been throughout.

As well as helping me through those painful and potentially alarming moments, I think practising mindfulness has had other effects useful in my everyday life, particularly in how I interact with my family and other people.

I don't do mindfulness as regularly as I should. I only go to the half hour sessions, rather than the longer ones in the evenings and at weekends, I don't think I do it particularly well. I'm easily distracted, my mind wanders everywhere, I fidget. I feel like I'm at the stage of someone learning to sail a model boat on a pond, rather than the captain of an ocean going liner. Nevertheless, learning a few simple mindfulness and relaxation techniques is helping me cope with a cancer, an operation, an ileostomy and the side effects of chemotherapy, as well as many other aspects of my life.

You can't knock it if it works!

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