Self-Compassion and Cancer

Painting by Emma Connolly

I am currently enrolled in the eight-week Cultivating Compassion course offered through the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  The course leader is Dr. William Thiele, the School’s Founding Director and author of the book Monks in the World.  William went through a year-long Compassion Cultivation Training program at Stanford University in preparation to lead the local sessions.  Dr. Thupten Jinpa at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford developed the course.  More about the course development can be found in Dr. Jinpa’s book A Fearless Heart.  Dr. Jinpa is otherwise known for being the official translator for The Dalai Lama since 1985.

The course approach to compassion convinced me to spend my Sunday afternoons for the next couple of months in the seminar setting.  Dr. Thupten defines compassion in A Fearless Heart (2015:xxii) as “. . . a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”  Also, I was intrigued that one session would be devoted to self-compassion.

The self-compassion session took place this past Sunday. In the session, William encouraged the participants to consider a personal circumstance or event that caused us to be filled with doubt and self-blame.  I was somewhat surprised that what immediately came to my mind was my stage 4 cancer diagnosis of one year ago.  In fact, the session brought me to view an aspect of the cancer diagnosis I had not discussed with anyone, but only internalized.

Last year, during the initial speculation on the primary source of the cancer, I immediately focused on my complicity in the disease:

  • As I was a cigarette smoker from the age of 10 until my mid-40s, I felt assured that I had lung cancer.  That proved not to be the case – my lungs are in great shape.
  • My general practitioners first guess was colon cancer and I immediately felt guilt for procrastinating and never having a colonoscopy despite the recommendation of my general practitioner 15 years ago.  However, my colonoscopy last August revealed a cancer-free GI system.
  • Next my oncologist ruminated that perhaps the cancer originated in my liver based on some blood test results.  I immediately then experienced the shame and self-blame of my years of alcohol and drug abuse.  However, subsequent PET and CAT scans showed my liver is free of any cancer as well.

Another exercise in today’s session was to respond to “If anything were possible,

  • What would I love to find in my life?
  • How would I want to grow as a person?
  • What would I want to offer the world?”

An immediate and legitimate response to the first question seemingly would be to deal with my health issues.  But with a bit of reflection, I thought otherwise, responding to the questions, respectively as follows:

  • for my thoughts and actions to align with a direction toward my true self
  • to prioritize how I expend my time and resources toward that alignment
  • my true self

These response make sense to me when I consider the popular Biblical adage, (Mark 8:36) “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”

True self has been the trajectory of my recovery for the past three decades – coming to terms with what I am truly called to be and do in all of my relationships with self, family, friends, and the world.  I cannot imagine having traveled that path without my road out of addiction.  I expect that my current health issues will provide me the same opportunities for growth and direction toward that true self.  Being self-compassionate clearly includes fully embracing those possibilities on that journey.

10 thoughts on “Self-Compassion and Cancer

  1. This is a wonderful post, Robert. It caused me to do some self-exploring and thinking more about self-compassion. I was never a smoker, but my mother and her mother both died from Alzheimer’s, so I tend to worry that my years of too much alcohol might have damaged lots of brain cells and given me a stronger propensity towards dementia. (I’m a worrier.) Your words here are helping me turn away from that negative thinking and focus on self-compassion. And goals. I also want to offer the world my true self. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks for your kind words. I was pleasantly surprised as well by the notion of self-compassion as being an important part of a healthy reality. Whereas we often think of things such as alcohol consumption as causing diseases, just as important in the equation is a life not nurtured in spiritual and mental development. Addressing all of these issues are important “medicines” that I must take every day.

      Be well.

  2. Thank you again for sharing; I always enjoy your posts. Self-compassion has been a challenging aspect of my life. I feel I’m just beginning to believe in my heart (instead of just in my head) that God loves me. Apart from that, I don’t know that self-compassion would be possible for me. I’d enjoy hearing more about what you are learning.

    Oh, I love the painting – beautiful!


    • Thanks for your words of support and reading the posts.

      In the Judeo-Christian tradition beginning in Leviticus through the Pauline letters, perhaps one of the most often repeated mandates is “loving your neighbor as yourself.” In my thinking, this requires a reciprocal and equal love, care, and compassion, both with self and others. This sentiment aligns with what I have come to understand in AA recovery as well – that I have to be sober for myself or I am of no good to others.

  3. I know what a rich course you have embarked upon because just reading what you have written has already caused me to stop dead in my tracks to ask, “How am I spending my days and ways? Who and even what is being cultivated/nurtured here?”

    I want to start completely over, like Huckleberry Finn–“Light out for the territory ahead of the rest” or build an altar like the disciples at the transfiguration! But my progress has been arrested mid-stride. I haven’t put my foot down yet. I’ve got to focus on finishing this one step, although my attention has been drawn to something far more life-giving. Thank you, Robert, for stopping my forward motion, so that I can practice stillness and mindfully consider where to place my foot for my next step.

    I look forward to hearing more about your training.

    • Celia, great to hear from you. I am coming to believe more strongly that we only get there when we breathe our last breath. I am coming more and more to enjoy this process, guided by intuition, and taking baby steps along the road. Hope to see you all again soon.

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