White-clad medical technicians snapped metal bolts through the mesh mask to immobilize my head. Straps constrained my body to the table that would slide me into the radiotherapy machine.
The donut-shaped radiotherapy device emitted clunking noises like a worn-out laundry machine.
Radiation would, in theory, kill a golf-ball-like tumor at the base of my tongue and a five-centimeter-long tumor beneath my right jaw bone.
I panicked. My chest shook like trees buffeted by typhoon winds.
Visualizations For Cancer Coping & Relief
Before entering the hospital, a friend suggested that I use visualization to deal with the hellish conditions to come. Trying to cope with cancer and what was next, I visualized my last snowshoeing trip with my wife and my faithful nature-loving dog.
We walked into a tunnel of snow-bowed cedar. The wind pushed clumps of snow off branches. My black dog leaped to catch silver snowflakes in her white teeth.
My mind froze those snowflakes in mid-air and zoomed inward. It marveled at the crystalline structure—such beauty. I let the flakes fall. My wife laughed as clouds of sparkling snow fell on her.
Then, I was back in the treatment room with my swollen tongue pointing from my ulcerated mouth toward the ceiling. Green bile and blood stuck to bandages on my neck.
In the Hospital
Before I had checked myself into the hospital, my doctor told me I would require three bouts of chemotherapy during seven weeks of radiotherapy. But kidney problems and side effects extended the treatment period to three months. I shared hospital rooms with many depressed and anxious patients.
Some were dying. A private conversation between my neighbor, his doctor, and his counselor slipped past the corrugated white plastic curtains. I heard them say that his cancer was incurable. That evening, I listened to his restless breathing and twisting in his bed. His aloneness, my aloneness, and our fears weighed on me.
For solace, I visualized another location in nature. I walked along a path between towering ferns in a verdant rainforest until reaching a stone cliff bathed in sunlight.
A circling eagle screeched. I climbed ancient steps carved into the cliff and found the eagle waiting on a ledge. Like old friends sitting side by side, we watched the sun fly over the forest canopy. At sunset, the eagle pointed his beak toward a cave in the cliff. I walked inside.
One golden sunray shone through a hole in the cave roof onto the warm cave floor. I lay down. The golden light entered my mouth, passed through my throat, and filled my body. My beloved dog from my childhood days, another from my thirties, and my current dog entered the cave. They pressed their warm bodies against mine. I felt love and healing.
Before leaving the hospital and going home, my doctor told me that the primary tumor had melted away. However, three centimeters of the secondary tumor remained. Were live cancer cells lingering in that mass? I could only wait for my next CT scan.
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy had destroyed my body’s ability to maintain an average temperature, and I was much thinner. Although I left the hospital in late summer, I wore a thick down-jacket in the sunlight while my wife wore sandals and a short skirt. Walking my dog, I stopped to rest more often than she wanted. Exhausted and afraid of cancer recurrence, I found refuge in the healing woods within my mind.
While my worries embraced me, Earth continued circling the sun. Winter arrived.
I stood at the base of a forested slope with forty runners with snowshoes. A whistle blew. They loped uphill. Gulping cold air, I walked as fast as possible. The trail reached a peak. I ran through trees, slid down small canyons, shuffled upward, and trudged onward. The trail circled. I was feeling proud when I was about to pass an elementary-school-aged girl, but she turned left to take the eight-kilometer path.
I turned right toward the finish line of the four-kilometer race. Someone rang a metal bell as I shuffled between a pair of trees showing the end. Exhausted, I let myself fall to the soft snow. Wrapped in snow wear, I stared at the white treetops and the blue sky. I felt damn good.
More To Come
A month later, after another CT scan, I was just one of the numerous cancer patients waiting for doctors in the head and throat cancer department. Some patients had jagged scars on their necks after tongue or larynx removal. They couldn’t speak. If cancer remained, I would need similar surgery. Afraid to learn what the CT scan showed, I returned to the woods in my mind.
On snowshoes, I walked toward a massive cedar tree. My forehead pressed against the rough bark. Leafy branches bent. They hugged and squeezed me. Tree aroma entered my nostrils as I passed through the dark bark into a world of moving light and warmth. My body separated into trillions of cells, which joined rivers of nutrients and water traveling through the trunk, branches, and leaves.
As I circulated through the tree, cancer cells flowed to the tips of the roots, which flung them through miles of soil into boiling magma. My cleansed and strengthened cells regrouped in the heartwood. Then the tree eased me outward.
A nurse announced my name. The doctor told me that all the cancer cells had melted away.
Cancer Coping: From Then To Now
Five years before that day, another doctor had informed me that my chance of surviving five years was less than forty percent.
I still return to the healing forests in my mind, and I snowshoe, with gratitude, in the real forests in the mountains near my home.
And I advise others fighting cancer. The mind-body connection is more than an abstract concept. It’s a real coping mechanism for cancer. I hope that you don’t need my advice, but if you do, find healing woods in your mind. And if you’re healthy, walk up a mountain.