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Self-Compassion & Cancer
What to Expect

Self-Compassion & Cancer

What to Expect


Hanna Kreiner

Cancer is the worst. It’s truly terrible. No one can argue with that.  Knowing this, if your friend was diagnosed with cancer, you would never intentionally add to the general terrible-ness of it all. Would you make negative comments about their appearance? Would you expect them to keep up with all their usual work/family/social responsibilities? Would you blame them for getting cancer? You most certainly wouldn’t. So why are we so hard on ourselves when we’re already facing a huge challenge like cancer?

Self-compassion is a perspective and a skill that encourages us to include ourselves in the same compassion we offer to our friends. Compassion happens when we notice someone is struggling and we want to ease their suffering in some way. You already know how to be compassionate. You have felt that warm or protective, caring feeling, and even been able to help others and eased their burden. Self-compassion happens when we notice ourselves in a moment of struggle and want to ease our own suffering. This is the part that takes practice.

In our culture, being kind, patient, and encouraging toward ourselves when we face difficulty is a foreign concept. It may be so foreign, that you’ve already started thinking of all the reasons self-compassion isn’t for you as you read this. Let me get ahead of some of the common misunderstandings and say that research shows self-compassion does not lead to self-indulgence, self-centeredness or self-pity. Rather, it helps keep us motivated toward our goals in the face of set-backs, helps us stay engaged with others and give back. Self-compassion doesn’t make more of our problems than they are, it simply acknowledges the truth of the difficulty we are faced with.

There is a saying, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” We suffer when we are in resistance to the pain of our lives. As humans, we are all going to have our share of hardship. Self-compassion helps us meet ourselves in those times with grace, rather than inadvertently add to the suffering. How might your life change if you had a little less tension and a little more understanding and warmth in your relationship with yourself?

So you may be curious now, how do I begin? Below is a three-part practice you can do with any challenge in your cancer experience, big or small. That said, I encourage you to start with something that feels “small” or not the hardest part of your experience, so you get practice and build the skill of self-compassion in shallow water before diving into the deep end.

A Self-Compassion Break When Dealing With Cancer

(This exercise has been adapted from Dr. Kristin Neff’s “Self-Compassion Break”)

Think of something you’re struggling with related to cancer. It could be a self-critical feeling you had, some stressful change to your treatment plan, or a difficult interpersonal interaction. It might be feeling powerless, navigating a new relationship with your body, or wishing you could go back to how it was before (hello, grief). There are often many difficulties to choose from, just pick one and stick to it for this practice and try to choose something only mildly difficult if possible. Imagine the struggle clearly—what  happened, who was there, and what was done, said, or thought, and how you feel. Now follow the steps below:

  1. Be mindfully aware that this is a moment of struggle. Label it and say to yourself, “This is hard,” “I’m hurting right now,” or “I wish things were different, and that’s painful.” Swear words are allowed!
  2. Connect to our shared humanity, and know you are not alone or flawed in your experience. There are over 18 million people with cancer in the world right now. Think of your struggle again and say, “This is what it feels like to be a person dealing with cancer,” “Other people go through this too,” or “We all struggle in life.”
  3. Be kind to yourself. Offer yourself some comforting touch like a hand over your heart or your arms around you in an embrace. Offer yourself the kind and encouraging words you’d say to a friend or a child.  “May I be kind and patient toward myself during this struggle,” “I deserve forgiveness/love/peace,” “I can do this. I am strong,” “Just one foot in front of the other is enough.”

Notice how you feel when you complete the practice. All responses are normal and okay, so allow yourself to feel whatever you feel and be however you are in this moment. Self-compassion won’t “fix” anything because you’re not broken to begin with. I hope this perspective allows you to be cared for by the one who knows you best - yourself, and to share the gifts you give to your loved ones with yourself too.

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