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Commentary on Pharma & Biotech Oncology / Hematology New Product Development

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”

Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?

The monk replied, “I have eaten.”

Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

At that moment the monk was enlightened.

Source: NoZen

It’s not a well known fact that I love minimalism as a concept, although I rarely achieve that nirvana, and have enjoyed reading many books on Zen.

The topic of mindfulness and cancer was something that came up in conversations at ESMO recently with Dr Steven Tucker.  He made some interesting points about mindfulness for health, as well as disease, and that’s something I have been thinking about more since then.

Yesterday, though, I went out for an early quiet lunch at a local Japanese restaurant thinking some quiet reflection would be a pleasant antidote to a busy couple of weeks on the work front.

You might think that the concept of peace, quiet and focused mindfulness would fit well with the cuisine.

Instead, after sitting down at the simple black tables, someone cranked up the sound on the TV in the corner of the room.  Service was fussy and overly intrusive.  As I was finishing, as soon as I barely put my chopsticks down in the Bento box, a waitress rushed over to snatch it up.  There was little sense of the peace and relaxation that I craved for while out of the office.

Later, while sipping some Jasmine tea in a little Chinese tea cup in the quiet of the office, some more reflective thoughts made me wonder – how many people actually stop and reflect in the hurly burly of life as it passes by at a frenetic pace?  How much does inner stress and outwardly fast paced lifestyles contribute to the origins or acceleration of cancer?

Perhaps we all need more quiet, focused mindfulness in our lives.  This is something I plan to work on more myself.

What about you?

18 Responses to “Zen and cancer”

    • maverickny

      I used to do that too, Pat. Then one day I realised that trying wasn’t working, the idea was to just ‘do’ in the moment.

  1. Stuart Harris

    Totally agree Sally. The other evening I was talking with a friend who recounted watching a program about four men who went on an eight-day silence retreat. It changed each of them profoundly. And as Rachel was talking about it, I just got a little flavor of it myself – delicious.

    I have found that in discussion with people there is enormous value in the space that’s created by paying attention – hence my company name Attention+Space Ltd.

  2. Jody MS


    In my mind’s eye zen in the middle of the storm is symbolic of ultimate health. We’ve already seen studies in breast cancer survivors indicating the stress reduction assists recovery. It’s been demonstrated to help men with early prostate cancer (Dean Ornish, as one example). Not only does serenity FEEL good it works on a cellular level as well. While this makes sense intuitively to see the science coming along that confirms it is fabulous.

    Thanks so this wonderful post, my friend, and I hope that the next Japanese restaurant you go to is
    more what you hoped to find.


    PS. Next week we’ll be addressing stress reduction, mindfulness, healthy lifestyles, etc. at a four-day retreat for female survivors at Life Beyond Cancer Foundation’s annual retreat outside of Austin.

    • maverickny

      That’s a lovely idea, Jody. Do you have a link for that retreat in case there are any Texan ladies reading who might be interested?

  3. Steven Tucker, MD

    Well, I guess I should say something thoughtful! I could not agree with you more Sally. The consistent use of even a little “alone time” can pay dividends for health. Sure we can’t measure the benefit as Level 1 evidence but for this intervention there is no down-side. Here is one tiny piece of evidence that should make everyone think about how “lifestyle” (including mindfulness) [from PNAS]

    • maverickny

      Love the link, many thanks Steve. Since ESMO I have found that despite being very busy, just focusing on one thing at a time has helped, a lot. Your patients are very lucky to have you as a doctor!

  4. fredcobio

    I think it may be a sushi day for lunch, but not at one of the “all you can eat” troughs. Lovely post. Certainly there has to be a connection between the immune system (hence an impact on cancer and control of proliferative cells that don’t belong) and the central nervous systems control center between the ears. In my minds eye it is the essence of the blood-brain barrier.
    Makes me want to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull again.

      • fredcobio

        Sal, Richard Bach was the author I also enjoyed “Illusions” and “One” All very zen in their approach. You have to be able to imagine yourself in a situation, to put your mind in the place you want to be, before it will become reality.

    • maverickny

      Agreed, @jodyms is the bees knees! I hope to finally meet her in person in January while at the MD Anderson GI/carcinogenesis meeting.

  5. NancyR

    Flip this around. Imagine you have a healthy lifestyle – you eat well, get exercise, have a good BMI, an active ‘spiritual’ life and are surrounded by supportive family and friends.

    Then you get diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly people are looking for reasons why. I’ve heard people say remarkably insensitive things to patients – “oh, you must have smoked” to the 35 year old non-smoker lung cancer patient, “you should have gotten pap smears” to the 45 year old who’s had annual pap smears for 20 years, “you’ve been under too much stress” to the 40 year old stage IV colorectal cancer patient who wasn’t. The assumption behind the questions is that we can actually control whether we get cancer.

    Should patients blame themselves for getting cancer? I’ve seen that happen, even in the cases above (real people) where the patients did everything they were supposed to do be healthy. I find some patient support books to be very insulting, because they imply that if you follow all the rules, you won’t get cancer. Or that if you can control your mind/body connection, you can cure yourself. I wish it was that simple. There are lifestyle issues that we CAN control – and there are other issues that we can’t.

    So yes, be zen-like 🙂 and also be aware of the flip side of the coin.

    • maverickny

      Hi Nancy, that’s a fair point and a good reminder that we cannot control everything in life. As as 12 yo child I certainly didn’t expect to be diagnosed with cancer and get irritated with people who think one must have done something to bring it on.

      Personally, I’ve lost a number of relatively fit and well relatives to cancer, which was actually what brought on the original discussions with Steve. Certainly I don’t blame myself for my childhood cancer, it was a long time ago. 30 years on, I’m thankful to still be alive and reasonably well/healthy although that could improve.

      We can control some things in life but many we can’t. I suppose what I was trying to articulate was that we should perhaps focus on the things within our control and let the rest take care of themselves.

  6. Liz Scherer

    What a great post Sally! I find that life has been so crazy that my focus is off. And I am frustrated. Can’t focus, can’t focus…just crave peace, and frustrated that I can’t find it. And then…I turn off the devices and I breathe. And listen. And the stress is alleviated, just a little bit. Zen? Not entirely. But so important, the alone time that is. I seek it constantly. And will continue to do so.

  7. @JodyMS

    I get that too, Nancy, meaning, I understand exactly where you’re coming from. My husband (exercise, healthy, non smoker) has now had two malignant melanomas. He could not really control having fair skin and sun burns as a child.

    Sometimes people get virulent, horrific cancers after having done EVERYTHING right. It happens. It breaks our hearts….I have been to those funerals. And it is also why, I do everything I can in my power to prevent my cancer from recurring, and I work day in and day out — like Sally and so many who have commented here — to find, fund, discuss and research the various treatments to tame this beast cancer for everyone.

    But at the end of the day, if ( heaven forbid) my cancer comes back – I’ll know in my heart I’d done everything to keep that from happening. In other words, that I took control of the things I can control. So many things fall in that range.

    And Sally, I’ll be talking about the retreat next Wednesday, Nov. 17 on SIRIUS “Doctor Radio” — that will be a blast. Also, the link to the retreat is:

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