Yoga and meditation helped Catherine come to terms with her diagnosis. Now she helps others do the same on our Younger Women Together courses, and shares her top tips for finding calm during and after treatment.
I didn’t think I had any risk factors
At 51, I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). It was a real shock because I wasn't expecting it. In fact, I skipped a mammogram at 50 because breast cancer wasn’t on my radar. No one in my family had it, and I didn’t think I had any risk factors.
My experience has made me encourage every woman I know to always consider going for a mammogram when invited or to check for unusual symptoms in their breasts, because the main risks are being a woman and getting older.
I learnt to embrace the reality of what was happening
The diagnosis felt like the stages of grief. Initially, I felt anger and thought, ‘Why me, what have I done wrong?’ Once that calmed down, I was able to embrace the reality of what was happening and get behind the treatment.
I felt lost once treatment ended
During treatment there’s a feeling of being looked after – you’re on a programme, with so much support. Once that’s done you're free of the hospital routine, which is a huge relief, but you also feel lost.
Having listened to a lecture by a psychologist about the end of the treatment, I realised it was natural to still feel scared. I think the most important thing at this point is maintaining a ‘normal’ life – whatever that means for you.
There came a point in my recovery when I knew I needed time alone, and I went on a retreat which was totally off-grid. That was where I came to terms with what happened and let go emotionally.
My diagnosis made me confront my own mortality
I had been practising yoga and meditation for years before my diagnosis. While they don’t give you an immunity to getting ill, they can help change your reaction to difficult situations. The idea of coming to terms with who we are and why we’re on this earth – that’s what those practices do for me.
My diagnosis forced me to confront the idea of my own mortality and spirituality. I was already on that path, but I hadn't really faced those aspects of it. It changed me on a profound level and gave me acceptance and gratitude for life as it is.
Breast cancer made me realise how powerful meditation is
The stress of surgery and treatment puts you into fight-or-flight mode, which brings about physical tension and anxiety. Meditation allows us to access a relaxed state from the inside, no matter what’s going on externally.
Going through breast cancer made me realise that meditation doesn’t have to be complicated – it’s the simple techniques that work. When you manage to stay calm in a situation, you can step back and hear what's being told to you. This helped me understand my situation, the treatment, and what my consultants were telling me.
Five tips for getting started with meditation
1. Close your eyes - Just sitting with your eyes closed is meditation, and you get many of the benefits of calming down the nervous system by doing this. When you’re waiting for appointments, it can help to close your eyes and simply follow your breath’s natural rhythm.
2. Try a mantra - Giving your mind something to focus on when you’re under pressure is helpful. My favourite is Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation on the breath:
‘Breathing in, I calm my body.
‘Breathing out, I smile.
‘Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.’
You could repeat this three times slowly and notice your mind and body settle.
3. Download an app - Initially, guided meditations are a good way to start meditating. There are great free apps out there which can help you practise if you find it hard to slow down. Insight Timer and 1 Giant Mind have many techniques for all levels.
4. Get into the habit - The best time to set the habit is in the morning before you get caught up in your day. Getting up five minutes earlier to practise is enough, then build up gradually to 10 or 15 minutes when you can.
5. Try yoga nidra - If you’ve never meditated before, try yoga nidra, otherwise known as yogic sleep. It’s a ‘talk-through’ relaxation of the body which has a profound calming effect and is a great way to get to sleep. You can find a great choice of yoga nidra on the free app Insight Timer.
Catherine Turner is a writer, editor and meditation teacher at Will Williams Meditation in London.
Find more tips and hints on adjusting to life after breast cancer in BECCA, our free app.