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Getting to Om: How Cancer Drove a Bulldog Litigator to Meditation

by Sarah A. O. Isenberg

I was pretty much the last person you’d think of when you thought “Zen.” I was a driven lawyer, a litigator, no less. I worked 90+ hour weeks. I drove fast, talked fast, and ate meals on the run. I didn’t nap; I hardly slept. I was on the fast track to corporate and personal success: loved work, just got married, recently bought a house, was trying to have my first baby. I was checking all the boxes on the “Young Adult Success” checklist. But then, at 32, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I was blindsided. No family history, no inkling, even, that I could ever have gotten cancer. It was found by accident. It was sheer luck. Nothing palpable. But it was cancer, and worse than we thought. I would need chemo, then radiation, then tamoxifen for five years. So while my contemporaries’ lives were on a trajectory for the exciting, I was sidelined.

I felt desperate and devastated. I gathered the facts, made the rounds, and participated in formulating the plan-of-attack, but once that got squared-away, I was left feeling adrift. What the heck would I do with myself while I was in treatment? What would become of me after treatment? My mind often raced out of control, I had trouble sleeping, trouble relaxing, trouble letting go of the worries and “what-ifs.”

But then an idea came across the transom. Someone suggested that meditation might help. That there was a program, offered through a Harvard University-affiliated teaching hospital, called the Mind/Body Program for Cancer Patients. The renowned doctor Herbert Benson, pioneer in studying physiological changes during meditation techniques, and creator of the relaxation response, was helping people cope with illness. His folks argued that regular practice of the relaxation response could help patients build greater resiliency when facing stress-related ups and downs. My gosh – who was more up and down than me? Although I was initially skeptical, what did I have to lose?

I enrolled in the program, and a whole new world opened up to me. The relaxation response is bite-sized meditation. It’s 20 minutes of mindfulness; of stepping off the worry-go-round. Quieting the mind by focusing on the breath, all the while repeating a word, prayer or phrase, focusing on the sounds in your environment, or by consciously willing each part of your body to relax. Its emphasis on directed focus is tough at first. Your mind wanders off to shopping lists and household to-do’s, but over the course of several weeks, I learned to let go.

It wasn’t easy. I was naturally a woman in motion. Doing things was the way to productivity, I thought. What good could sitting still do? But I hunkered down, put in the time and gave it a go. And I found that when I took time to elicit the relaxation response, my breathing and heart rate slowed, and that I entered a state of quietude. Most importantly, the 20-minute time-out I took once or twice a day left me far more relaxed than when I began. It seemed like magic. No drugs, no needles, just me, my breath and my mind. It was awesome.

The zany but extraordinarily loveable and smart psychologist who taught the course also taught us about “mini’s” – short little meditations that one can do anywhere when stress is seeping in around the edges. For example, counting up to four on the in-breath, back down from four to one on the out-breath. “Try it in an MRI tube,” she urged. “Try it while you’re waiting for your doc,” she implored. “You will chill yourself right out.” She was right. Soon, I was falling asleep during scans and getting accurate blood pressure readings prior to chemo treatments. I was more myself. A bald, terrified self, but a more relaxed bald and terrified. Better able to cope with baldness and terror.

Over the course of that year of treatment, I had a lot of time to flex my relaxation muscles. And as I finished treatment and moved on with my life, gradually acclimating to my “new normal,” I will admit I practiced less often. I took my lack of discipline as a good sign. I had less adversity to cope with. I was all clear, no evidence of disease, getting on with my life, finally. But nearly a decade later, when I was re-diagnosed with a second primary breast cancer, I immediately knew what I needed to do to rein in my anxiety. As I juggled a new round of information gathering and appointments, considered mastectomies and reconstruction options, I simultaneously re-discovered the relaxation response techniques. It was a relief to have them there, waiting for me. Because once you learn, it’s like riding a bike. I pulled that tool out of my box and put it to work for me.

For more information on the relaxation response, visit the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. For information on Ann Webster, PhD, the Director of the Mind/Body Program for Cancer Patients who taught me the relaxation response, visit her personal web site.


Sarah Isenberg is a recovering lawyer, two-time breast cancer survivor and accomplished home cook with a penchant for whole foods, healthy living, green tea and black shoes. She lives just outside Boston, Massachusetts with her 8-year-old daughter, husband, and a fancy hamster named Ruby. Get the latest on what she’s cooking at Semi-Sweet: A Practical Guide to Healthy Living, or on the joys and trials of her dance with cancer at Be The Weeble.



This entry was posted in all, Integrative Therapies, Living with Cancer, Living with Cancer, Medical Professionals and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Getting to Om: How Cancer Drove a Bulldog Litigator to Meditation

  1. John McGah says:

    I love it Sarah! Thanks you for sharing this..and so eloquently. Very inspiring. I’ve had a lot of things in life pointing me to Herb Benson’s work and this has pushed me over the edge to dig deeper. Hope we can all reconnect soon!

  2. Kate says:

    Fantastic article. And as you say, it’d be good for us to practice the relaxation response for anything and everything that ails us — tough (for me!) but fewer side effects than any other wide-spectrum medicine I can imagine.

    I’ll try it. Again. Practice makes…good enough, right?

  3. Elaine W. says:

    Sarah, I loved the article. William’s group therapist has long employed these relaxation techniques with the boys. I have always thought that this would be good for me too as well reinforce the habit for William. It’s a discipline I should work on.

  4. Pingback: Restorative Yoga - a Balm for the Cancer Experience - Cancer Knowledge Network

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