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The Mindful Society: Practicing With Cancer

by Barry Boyce

In the spring of 1995, when she had been teaching Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction for eleven years, Elana Rosenbaum (left) was diagnosed with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. Rosenbaum’s cancer led her to many arduous courses of treatment, including a stem-cell transplant, and brought her to the brink of death. It also brought her deeply into the practice of mindfulness and made her one of the most sought-after teachers of mindfulness for cancer patients.

Rosenbaum’s 2005 book, Here for Now: Living Well With Cancer Through Mindfulness, documents her experience and provides guided exercises to help patients live with cancer rather than suffer from it, and to become participants in their care rather than observers. She is currently working on a book that reflects what she has learned over the past few years teaching both patients and clinicians and doing research on the application of mindfulness in hospital settings.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer,” Rosenbaum told me, “it was a great shock, because the thought was that if you meditated and ate right, you wouldn’t get sick, and in my crowd I was the first one to get a serious illness. We used to often say, ‘This too shall pass’ around the stress-reduction clinic, but we weren’t usually talking about human life itself. I made up my mind then to live what I had been teaching. I already was to a certain extent, but the diagnosis really tested my ability to follow through on that.”

Rosenbaum teaches patients a range of mindfulness meditations, starting with breath and branching out to include sounds and sensations, a body scan, and loving-kindness. She feels it’s important for patients to transform their experience of pain by understanding the simplicity of sensation. While she was initially concerned about how very ill people would relate to a body scan, she now finds it essential. “I thought they might experience their body as betraying them, but I discovered that the body scan is a very effective way to develop a friendly relationship with what is happening.” A selection of her guided meditations can be heard at www.mindfulnessforcancer.com and CDs of her instructions can be purchased at mindfuliving.com.

Rosenbaum feels mindfulness should be part of the curriculum in medical and nursing schools, since in her view the understanding of the mind–body connection is becoming pivotal in medical treatment. It would also be helpful, she says, for people in health-care professions to have short periods of time in their offices when they regularly practice mindfulness, and ask others to come join if they like. She would also like to train volunteers who would be willing to sit with patients in different medical settings and practice mindfulness. She has been traveling the country training nurses, occupational therapists, psychologists, social workers, and other members of the caring professions, including some from the military. The programs are arranged by PESI HealthCare, an organization that provides continuing education credits to nurses and other health-care workers.


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