5-Step Mindful Walk: Reconnecting with Yourself after Cancer

Hiking in autumn forest“When I’m in turmoil, when I can’t think, when I’m exhausted and afraid and feeling very, very alone, I go for walks. It’s just one of those things I do. I walk and I walk and sooner or later something comes to me, something to make me feel less like jumping off a building.” —Jim Butcher

Why Walking?

Several months ago, when I came across the quote above, I felt that little zap of connection you feel when someone hits right on your emotional mark. In addition to being a licensed therapist, I’m a cancer survivor—and I have found deep healing after cancer treatment through the practice of walking.

Turns out that some of the greatest artists in all of history were devotees of the daily walk. Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau and Tchaikovsky were just a few of the endorsers of walking as a way to engage with humanity, spur creativity, and cultivate a deep relationship with oneself.

Mindful walking is a practice that has been an integral part of many religious and spiritual practices the world over for thousands of years. The tradition of walking the labyrinth has been a part of the Christian faith since the middle ages. Often known as prayerful walking, it is considered a powerful method for connecting with God. In the Buddhist tradition, walking meditation is one of the cornerstones of meditative practice. Buddhist monks integrate mindful walking as they perform chores and go about the business of daily life.

In addition to a rich history of providing emotional and spiritual benefits, in recent years a number of studies indicate that a daily walking practice, mindful in nature or not, may reduce cancer recurrence risk for some cancers—in particular, breast and colon cancers.

According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women with a history of breast cancer who walked three or more hours a week showed a 50% reduction in recurrence compared to women who were inactive. Clearly, the benefits of walking are numerous.

Healing Body and Mind

After cancer treatment I felt the need to commit to a daily practice in which I could build back up my body, mind, and spirit. I felt intuitively that I needed to be outdoors, connected with people and nature after all those months cloistered inside my home (or, more specifically, camped out on the living room couch). When I was advised by my doctor to try to incorporate some daily walking into my schedule, I didn’t hesitate to put that suggestion into action.

I committed to the practice of a daily, hour-long walk and made it the centerpiece of my day. Much to my surprise, this daily walk became an essential component in not only my recovery from cancer but also in managing stress and anxiety. It is now built into the matrix of how I cope with the seemingly endless litany of “problems,” both big and small, that I encounter in my daily life.

Through a walking practice, you can cultivate a habit of looking within and connecting more deeply with all the feelings drowned out and pushed to the side while going through cancer treatment. For many, if not most, cancer survivors, it’s only after cancer treatment ends that they really feel the full emotional impact of what they’ve been through.

By identifying those feelings instead of trying to outrun or escape them, you’ll be better able to address the ways in which cancer impacted you emotionally. This will allow you to connect with and move through your healing process more fully, which in turn allows you to be able to help others along with their own healing.

When walking, it’s helpful to notice things unseen in daily life—the small connections with nature. The noticing of those small details can help you to “stop and smell the roses” and stay in the moment, rather than living in the past or worrying about the future.

That power of finding connection with nature, even in an urban landscape, cannot be underestimated. It’s the reason we go to look into the Grand Canyon or gaze at the majesty of Niagara Falls. It puts us in touch with the “hugeness” of the world, time, and space. It also connects us to our common humanity.

Daily walking is also necessary in getting back into a healthy relationship with your body after cancer. You might still be feeling fairly angry with your body for betraying you by getting cancer in the first place.

You just may find that the more you walk, the stronger you feel—both in body and mind. At the start, you’ll be working both physical and emotional muscles that may have been laid dormant. Here is your chance to build them up and make them even stronger than before.

The Practice of Mindful Walking

I’ll share with you the method that I’ve developed in creating a mindful walk experience. Feel free to adjust the steps, add or remove pieces, and tailor it to your unique needs.

  1. Step outside. Take a moment to stretch and connect to your body. Are there areas that are tight and require some attention? Take a couple of deep breaths and get centered.
  2. Begin walking at a leisurely pace. Take a moment to focus on your breath. You may choose to breathe in with one step and out with another, or you may want to just have some awareness as to how your breath connects with your movements.
  3. Pay attention to your body’s signals. What does it need today? Do you feel strong and steady on your feet, or fragile and unsure how long you can go on? Are you relaxed, or are you carrying unwanted tension with you? If an hour-long walk is too tall an order, find what works for you with the energy you have.
  4. Take a look around and notice things—really, deeply notice. What sights, sounds, and smells are you aware of? The din of freeway traffic in the distance? The tangy smell of ozone after a rain? The brightness of the leaves as they turn colors? Look for the details and take them in. Be attentive to what you pass each day but never really look at. Be aware.
  5. Notice feelings that come up. Are you feeling vulnerable, lonely, or disconnected? Are you feeling joyous, awed, or exuberant? Are you feeling a mixture of both positive and negative feelings, or are you just in the middle in a swirl of emotions so overwhelming that you are having difficulty identifying what they are? In any case, don’t try to chase or change them. Just notice the feelings (or lack thereof), acknowledge them, and then allow them to move on by.

Even if cancer has left you without full mobility and you use a wheelchair or scooter to get around, the simple act of being outside in mindful awareness can be healing. Taking time to process your feelings and treat yourself right is what it’s all about. I hope that this mindful walking practice helps you like it’s helped me. I wish you abundant healing and wellness.

Reference:

Holmes MD, Chen WY, Feskanich D, Kroenke CH, Colditz GA. Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. Journal of the American Medical Association 2005; 293(20):2479–2486.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stacey Fuller, LMFT, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 7 comments
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  • Frannie

    Frannie

    November 20th, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    Walking does sort of help to clear the mind and reinvigorate the spirit don’t you think?

  • Corrinne

    Corrinne

    November 20th, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    Really I think that any thing that you can find that in some way allows you to make that mind and body connection, is going to be a positive thing for your overall well being. For some it may be walking, while for others it could be, I don’t know, painting, but anything that allows you to really feel and really see your emotions and to express those in a positive way is only going to have good benefits for you.

  • susan d

    susan d

    November 20th, 2014 at 9:05 PM

    my uncle used to take walks after he was treated of his cancer, but this made my aunt panic for some reason. she would just not take in the fact that he wanted to spend some time alone and connect or rather reconnect with himself. she thought spending time with family was the best way to recoup and that spending time alone could fill him with negative feelings and make him feel bad about his condition.

    they never reached a common ground and although both of them are now long gone, I wonder if his recovery would have been even better had he gotten the support from her.

  • Jane

    Jane

    November 21st, 2014 at 10:28 AM

    I am stunned to read the statistics of just how much lower the numbers of recurrence for cancer were for those who walked when looked at up against the numbers of those who did not walk. That is simply amazing. If walking is this powerful in our own health and recovery, this isn’t something that only cancer patients should be doing. This is something that we should all be doing.

  • troy

    troy

    November 21st, 2014 at 1:24 PM

    I did not realize that this technique was so deeply rooted in many of the world’s major religions.
    That’s quite interesting.

  • Ryanne

    Ryanne

    November 22nd, 2014 at 2:13 PM

    You don’t realize just how much you sometimes need this connection with nature until you go on a good long walk, and then you begin to recognize just how much you have probably missed this and honestly just how much you can learn about yourself and about the world just by engaging in this simple activity.

    It takes no money, very little time, and a simple commitment to dedicating yourself to finding out who you are again. None of this is bad, and only things that are valuable and good can come from adding this one activity to your daily life.

  • Andrew

    Andrew

    November 24th, 2014 at 3:48 AM

    The thing about having cancer is that this becomes so much a part of who you are that I think that in addition to stealing away your good health that you probably took for granted, it sort of takes away your identity. It’s almost like the people around me that have gone through this come to identify not with themselves anymore but the self that develops after they find out their diagnosis. I think that this urge to walk and reconnect could be a wonderful thing for those who have lived this, as a way to figure out once again who they are without cancer, and who they are that goes far beyond that diagnosis.

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