How Meditation Helped Me During Event Planning & Brain Cancer | Karen Stefanson
We interviewed Karen Stefanson, a Canadian brain cancer thriver, in 2022. Nearing the end of the writing process, we stopped hearing from her. Unfortunately, we received word from her family in March 2023 that she had passed away. Her health had taken a turn for the worse soon after sitting for this interview. With permission from her family, we are publishing this interview in her memory & honor.
Karen was a wonderful person who believed in the power of Meditation as a mental health tool, especially during the tumultuous times of Cancer. Read on to find out more about her cancer & meditation journey.
1. What is your cancer diagnosis story?
Karen: One day in 2013, I went to the emergency room after feeling unwell since the night before. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but the doctors told me that I’d actually experienced my first seizure. A neurologist examined me, saw a tumor in my brain, and scheduled me for surgery later that month.
After my surgery, I thought the toughest part was over. The doctors told me that my tumor was benign, and I had nothing more to worry about. A few weeks into surgery recovery, the cancer center called me and said:
“OK, so your first cancer treatment appointment is in a few weeks.”
I responded “What? You don’t get it, my tumor is benign.”
That’s when they told me that I needed to come to the center for an appointment right away, because I actually had cancer. The doctors had given me the wrong information. The communication on that end was not great.
2. Did you have a family history of cancer, or was it something you'd never thought about?
Karen: I never expected it. When I woke up in the middle of the night feeling sick, I just took the sheets off my bed, put a blanket around myself, and went back to sleep. The next morning, I even showed up at work like normal. Thankfully, a friend told me I should go to the emergency room just in case, and I listened. That’s what led to my seizure and tumor diagnosis.
Brain tumors can be benign, but surgery usually cannot fully remove the tumor. I had to go for chemo and radiation again a few years later because my tumor is constantly growing. No matter how many surgeries I have, it will not ever be completely removed. Currently, I’m doing better and only have to go in for my MRI every six months. When things are bad, I have to get one every three months.
That’s definitely a burden on your mind and schedule, having scans every 3 months.
Karen: Definitely. I’ve even had to change towns due to my cancer diagnosis. I used to live by myself in Whistler, British Columbia, a ski mountain. Now, I’ve moved back in with my parents from a combination of not being able to work and dealing with the side effects of cancer. Thankfully, I have a good doctor here in town who’s been able to help me do all my MRIs. I used to have to take a ferry to my old treatment center, which was especially hard during Covid. Doing MRIs close to home makes everything so much easier.
3. Does Canada have disability benefits for people unable to work because of cancer?
Karen: Yes, Canada has a “Person With A Disability” status. I applied for that to hopefully make some money. It’s something, but it’s nowhere near enough to live on. It also took me quite a while to find out about the program & learn how to even apply for it.
Getting financial assistance as a cancer patient is so tough. You’re trying to focus on fighting cancer, but you have to deal with all these other cancer-related responsibilities. No one wants to do hours of paperwork when they’re feeling sick after chemo/radiation.
4. How did meditation help you when you were diagnosed?
Karen: Before my brain tumor diagnosis, I used to be an event planner. I loved my job, but it was really stressful. One day in the early 2000s, I checked out a meditation book from the library. I was embarrassed to even do that. Now, I’m so thankful that I picked up that book.
I didn’t know much about meditation or yoga when I started, but I kept trying different things. In 2012, I found a teacher in a city about two hours away. Every weekend I drove to the classes and learned more about meditation, until I ended up becoming a meditation teacher. I finally reached the status of teacher exactly one year before I was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Finding meditation when I did; it’s just one of those things in life that I look at now and am very thankful for. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through the past 8-9 years of my life without meditation. Now, I’m also able to use my knowledge of meditation to teach others in the cancer community.
You don’t need to wait until something traumatic happens in your life to start meditating. It’s an easy skill to pick up at any time in your life. Even if I wasn’t diagnosed with cancer, my current meditation skills would have worked wonders for me as an event planner. Nevertheless, meditation was a mandatory skill for me during my cancer journey. Having a brain tumor brought a whole new level of stress into my life, and I grew so much because of it. Meditation helped me handle it all a little more quietly within my body.
5. What was one time that you used meditation to center yourself when you were feeling overwhelmed?
Karen: Once, I was on the phone with the government. I have never felt so panicked and overwhelmed before in my life. This was the first time I understood what true panic felt like. Normally, when a phone conversation frustrated me, I would just get a little upset and then shake it off. During this conversation, I was at the point where tears were streaming down my face and I couldn’t breathe. Only able to get tiny breaths in and out of my lungs, I was fully hyperventilating. I couldn’t even think. Even just talking about this phone call makes me feel anxious again.
Thankfully, I said to the person on the phone “I can’t talk about this anymore” and hung up. I sat down and just started to breathe. I paid attention to my short, labored breaths and focused on bringing them back into my body so I could breathe fully again. I was able to feel them getting caught in my throat and was able to bring my frazzled mind back together again. I gave my mind space to focus on how I was feeling and what I could do to help my body through this panic attack. I told myself “You’re ok, let’s just focus on our breathing. Let’s take a deeper breath if we can.”
I took shorter breaths, brought them back into my lungs, and slowly worked through the attack. It was really difficult. I’d never had that happen to me before, but I am very thankful I had the meditation skills to deal with it.
Another moment was when I started radiation for the first time. I was absolutely terrified. When you have a brain tumor, you have to wear a giant mask that is bolted over your face during radiation. I had to lie in this room alone, with this mask over my face, for as long as the radiation was occurring. I’d already gone through two sessions and thought that I couldn’t go through any more.
I called my meditation teacher for the first time in months, but she picked up and was excited to speak to me. She taught me that through practicing meditation, you gain the skill of being more aware of your body and what you’re doing. On this call, she told me the following:
“Keep your eyes open. What do you see when you’re in the radiation room? What do you smell when you’re in the room? What can you possibly taste when you’re in the room? How does your body physically feel? Are you hot? Are you cold? How does your face feel under the mask? How do your toes feel? What can you hear?”
Cycling through those questions in my mind and focusing on my awareness of my own body helped me so much during these grueling radiation sessions. Others going through difficult treatment processes that require you to sit alone doing nothing for long periods of time can use these same techniques.
6. What are other things you do to relieve stress and anxiety?
Karen: If I’m needing a mood booster, music comes in. I love listening to songs! I have playlists for myself both on Spotify and Youtube. I also love to go for walks. I wear earphones while I’m outside so I can be in nature and still relax with my favorite songs. That puts me in a great state of mind.
Phone calls with friends or family are also a great way to relieve stress. Sometimes I just need to talk to someone about something that isn’t cancer. We can have conversations about what we are watching on Netflix, or have a short call just to say hello. These conversations helped to put me back into the “regular” world, rather than just sitting around thinking about medicine all the time. My nieces and nephews don’t fully understand what I’m going through, they want to talk about what else is happening in their lives. And I am so happy to do that.
I also have a therapist who I discuss the more pressing issues with. I can go to my therapist and say:
“This is what I’m struggling with right now. How can I work through these things?”
Lastly, I love birdwatching. I never used to do it before cancer, but now I try to make time for it regularly. I can see the birds from my backyard, or I can take a short trip to the park and watch from there. I usually end up knitting while birdwatching. Finding my own things to do that I truly enjoy and taking the time for them is important to me. Taking concrete time for myself is so important, because I can’t be my best self if I don’t take time for myself.
7. What type of meditation do you teach?
Karen: My meditation teacher spent 30 years in the Himalayas before returning to Canada. Her name is Padma, like the lotus flower. She even had a TV show for quite a few years here in Canada where she taught both yoga and meditation techniques. Then, she focused more on meditation, teaching her classes with ancient Himalayan and Sanskrit words. She also teaches the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible of the yoga and meditation world.
Everything I know about meditation, I know from her. I loved what she taught me. Now, I teach modern meditation. I don’t delve into the ancient words and writings in my classes, instead focusing on teaching the techniques in a way that modern people can easily understand. Rather than teaching mantras using Sanskrit words, I use English words.
If you practice meditation for 10 minutes a day, you start being able to enjoy life more. Before, I was always rushing through life, only focusing on the things that were absolutely necessary to keep going. Now, I look out the window and take the time to see the Canadian geese fly by my home. Instead of gulping down my tea in the morning, I sit and enjoy the taste. I really listen when I have conversations with my friends and family.
Whether you have cancer or not, something is going to happen to you in life that you have no control over. You cannot change the past or the future. All you can do is focus on “Right here. Right now.” It’s become a mantra for me. I focus on being with myself every day and focusing on each day right now.
8. Do you have any other mantras or messages you’d like to share with the IHC community?
Karen: The other message I have for you is this.
Be kind to yourself. Be nice to yourself. You’re already going through so much.
The last few years of our lives have been a whirlwind for everyone across the globe, so take the time to give yourself some grace if you are struggling. Once you are kind to yourself, it’s easier to be kind to others.