April is Stress Awareness Month, and for those living with lung cancer, feelings of stress or anxiety can become unwelcome symptoms of the changes and challenges living with lung cancer creates. However, tools like mindset and mindfulness have led to individuals gaining a sense of control over their emotions, including stress. Ben Garcia, certified life coach and Mindfulness Meditation instructor, sat down with us to discuss the importance of having a positive mindset and how mindfulness can help patients process their emotions, leading to lower instances of stress, anxiety, and overwhelming emotions. You may be familiar with Ben from LUNGevity’s Virtual Meetups, where he has hosted our Mindful Monday series. As a cancer survivor and retired oncology nurse, Ben brings a unique perspective to his work
What is a mindset and why is it important for people living with lung cancer?
The idea of mindset is complicated. Essentially mindset is the frame of mind through which one interprets and responds to life events. In psychology, a mindset is a belief that orients the way one handles situations - the way one perceives what is going on and how one behaves as a result. A professional colleague of mine defines it as a set of established attitudes that shape one's interpretation and response to changes and challenges. Often, our mindset was shaped from our parents or other significant people in our early childhood or from our experiences. A lung cancer diagnosis changes life in dramatic ways for both patients and their caregivers. It is not unusual to react with anger, fear, anxiety, confusion, grief, or a sense of being overwhelmed. The diagnosis marks the start of a journey that no one welcomes. This is where mindset comes in. Some patients may say, "I can do this" while other patients view their illness as insurmountable. It's important to point out that mindset can be changed. I regularly work with cancer patients who develop a hopeful “survivor” mindset through courses in mindfulness meditation.
Can mindset affect our health?
A lot of research indicates that mindset can make a significant difference in patients’ physical and mental health. The mind-body connection is real. Some important facts are that mindfulness meditation reduces cortisol in the body (the fight or flight hormone), helps improve sleep, reduces anxiety, and even helps with some chronic pain. It is a tool that is very helpful in developing a better understanding of one’s mindset. It can help one handle the stresses of the cancer experience, including facing or managing difficult emotions like fear, anger, change in self-image, and coping with cancer-related symptoms and side effects. A positive mindset has been shown to positively affect mental health, bring greater happiness, and increase resilience.
What role does maintaining a positive mindset play in a patient’s experience?
Once someone is diagnosed with lung cancer, whether they are undergoing treatment or not, they are considered “survivors”. Mindset matters. Knowing that there will be ups and downs, adopting a positive survivor mindset will get you through the tough times. Everyone will have their own unique survivor mindset. Some key questions that play an important role in the survivor mindset are “What role do I want to play in this experience?” “How much do I want to know?” “How can I contribute to my cancer care?” Taking responsibility or an active role in your care is just one part of a positive mindset. Having input in your cancer treatment can restore a sense of autonomy, as opposed to cancer having control over you.
How can we influence our mindset?
The first step is getting in touch with what our mindset is and deciding to develop a more positive mindset, if we feel the need to do so. Like making changes in anything else, improving a mindset may take some work. Practice helps any new skill grow stronger. This is where mindfulness meditation comes into play. It’s a way to practice being aware of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and mindset so we can reshape them in ways that help us. Fortunately, many books, magazines, and apps for your phone are available to help patients learn about and practice mindfulness meditation. Another way to influence our mindset is to adopt an “attitude of gratitude”. It has been found in research studies that people with such an attitude tend to be happier and less stressed. One of my first patients introduced me to this, and it has become a core tenet of my teaching and my own mindfulness practice. A good place to start is by becoming aware of the small things that matter and appreciating the value that they bring to your life. If it’s difficult at first, don’t get discouraged. Practice taking time each day to notice the good or beautiful things around you and say thanks. Over time an attitude of gratitude will come more naturally.
Cancer brings many challenges. Patients benefit when they take advantage of the many resources (in-person and online) that offer information, advice, and support. In addition, patients can seek support from their family, friends, the community, their faith, and their medical team. My advice is to be honest with yourself and with others in expressing what you are experiencing. Don’t pretend that things are going well when they are not. Let your medical team know the real story. You are the one that is the most important in your care – your mindset, determination, courage, your own inner wisdom.
Many of my patients have said that they have regained a sense of what really matters to them, of what is important, and that cancer gave them more than it took away. Practicing mindfulness is one way to help you find silver linings in survivorship.
I want to say to those on this journey that you are not alone, and I wish you calm in the midst of any anxiety and a peaceful heart.
Benito "Ben" Garcia, BSN, RN, is a certified life coach and retired oncology nurse based in Dallas, TX. Ben dedicated his more than 40-year career to supporting patients on their healthcare journeys and has a unique perspective as a veteran, longtime nurse, and cancer survivor himself. While serving in the U.S. Air Force, Ben held management roles related to mental health, medical nursing, and Tricare implementation. After his 20-year service in the military, he entered the clinical research arena, where he served as a coordinator and program manager for several clinical trials and research studies, with a primary focus on oncology. Today, as a Mindfulness Meditation instructor, Ben teaches mindfulness as a tool to feel calmer, less stressed, and more focused. Ben just wrapped up a 4-week Mindful Monday program with LUNGevity Foundation through our virtual meetups. Learn more about our online communities, virtual meetups, and other support services here