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In late 2001, Rosenbaum gave up teaching a regular round of classes at the stress-reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts and began focusing on patients and caregivers through her psychotherapy practice and a variety of other venues. For years, she taught mindfulness at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a leading research institute affiliated with Harvard. Rosenbaum feels the fact that she had been a patient there lent her a lot of credibility with patients during times of stress. Our native skepticism makes it harder for us to listen to someone teaching us from the outside-in, Rosenbaum says, so “it’s meaningful for patients that I have cancer and know it intimately. Cancer changes your life. There are suddenly lots of doctor’s appointments and trips to hospitals. Cancer scares you. When you enter a clinic, you see pale, weak people who have lost their hair. You know you could die. The fact that I’m alive and that I talk about the experience calmly and matter-of-factly inspires people, but I do not identify myself as a cancer survivor.”

One of her most important campaigns now is research into applications of mindfulness with cancer patients, which she does in partnership with Susan Bauer-Wu. Results of a successful pilot study with patients undergoing stem-cell treatment were published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies in June, 2008. Based on that success, Bauer-Wu received a National Institutes of Health grant and is currently leading a three-year study involving 280 patients, in which one group receives mindfulness-based training, another group has standard care augmented by sessions with an oncology nurse educator, and a third group receives standard care. Rosenbaum works as an advisor for the mindfulness instructors.

When teaching professionals, one of Rosenbaum’s main emphases has been helping people—often nurses, who are very enthusiastic about this work—to understand that they are facilitating, not fixing, and that mindfulness needs to be translated to patients in a way that allows them to appreciate its real nature. “Since mindfulness is such a big thing these days, many people have heard of it but they automatically think of it as a technique, rather than a way of being. You need to embody it for people and find the words that will resonate for the particular patient you’re working with. They need to understand that a technique—stopping and focusing—is involved, but that it goes much deeper. A technique is mechanistic, but to really live with a practice, to encompass it and embody it, it can’t be about doing. It has to be about non-doing, connection, and compassion.”

“I am passionate about this work,” Rosenbaum says at the end of our conversation. “Cancer is not something that any of us would ever want to have happen to us, but it can be a tremendous opportunity to look at some of our conditioning. It can also be an opportunity to look deeply and make amends for some things we don't like. We can come into a greater sense of peace with ourselves and with others.”

Originally published in the November 2009 Shambhala Sun magazine.


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