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Zen and the Art of Surviving a Bone Marrow Transplant

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By: Peter Thomason

There’s a good chance if you are reading this blog that you are a cancer and transplant survivor, a caregiver, a friend or family member of a survivor. Hopefully, things are improving for you, though quite possibly they are not. You may be holding on to life or sanity by the thinnest of threads, or are feeling that you are in a deep hole out of which there is no exit. You may be within the first few months of your transplant, sitting at home, unable to go out or drive; or, like me, getting ready to celebrate your next transplantiversary. You may feel that your recovery has been easy or, conversely, that you have been in hell and will never get out. Each of us, whether we can write about it or not, has a story to tell. Mine has not been an easy one, but practicing meditation, Zen, has made it much more bearable.

Most well-intentioned family members and friends do not have the capacity for empathizing with someone suffering with cancer, recovering from a transplant, or their side-effects. It is not their fault; it’s just like asking a fish to walk with you or in your shoes. Instead of finding someone you can lean on, you get splashed with cold water. As much as we may want or expect our friends and family to be able to understand or empathize with us, especially if we are survivors, it is unreasonable for us to expect them to do so. Capacity has nothing to do with intention or even imagining that you can do something for them; for us.

When you sit down at Thanksgiving dinner, you might think, or even say out loud, that you could eat everything on the table plus all of the pies on the sideboard. But experience will, or already has, told you that you cannot. You don’t have that much capacity. Wisdom, the practical knowledge gained through experience and reflection, teaches that it is better to be prudent about how much you eat or drink unless you like kneeling on the floor with your face in a toilet. It’s good to know your capacity.

Zen, a Japanese word that simply means “meditation,” is most often associated with Buddhism, but is actually a kind of non-religious discipline, a way of training ourselves and our minds to live calmly in the present moment.  It actually can help to increase our capacity to handle the suffering that comes with a disease like cancer. Another way to think of it is that it can increase our endurance like any exercise of the body or mind increases our strength. Like conflict, suffering is one of the inevitable and unpleasant things that is part of being alive, even though we would like to ignore them or have them simply go away. What matters is how we choose to accept them.

I usually meditate as soon as I get up in the morning after I have gotten a cup of coffee and let the dogs out. After they have come back in, had a treat and are comfortable, I sit in my favorite spot, light a candle on a nearby table, close my eyes, and imagine that with each breath in, a small wave is rolling up on a sandy seashore. As I breathe out, the wave is rolling back to sea. As different thoughts and feelings present themselves to my consciousness, I let them come in with a wave and then roll back out again.

Gradually, when practiced regularly, the discipline of calming my mind and emotions with controlled breathing helps me to not be dragged into the turmoil of the ocean and its undertow, and to maintain balance. I like to imagine staying in the present moment as if riding a wave, balancing myself on a surfboard. It can be both exhilarating and terrifying. However, the alternatives of floating back behind the wave (living in the past) and going nowhere, or of being crushed in the surf because I got ahead of the wave (living in fear of the future) are much less satisfying and helpful to me in my recovery. The better I get at navigating the wave of the present, the better I can see what is going on around me and the more able I am to endure its ups and downs.

So much more can be said about Zen, practicing mindfulness in the present, struggling with capacity, chemobrain, GvHD, and other transplant recovery issues than that which can be addressed in a short blog article. To learn more, I suggest reading about Zen in the tradition of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh through his many books and articles.

My fiance Olya, me, my donor Ralf, his wife Kirsten September 2018, Aschaffenburg, Germany

My fiance Olya, me, my donor Ralf, his wife Kirsten September 2018, Aschaffenburg, Germany


Me on the left with my donor Ralf on the right in September 2018, in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, Germany thirty months post transplant.

Me on the left with my donor Ralf on the right in September 2018, in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, Germany thirty months post transplant.

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