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Mindfulness Takes Center Stage

by Rachel MihalkoSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaSeptember 21, 2021View more posts from Rachel Mihalko

It’s raining right now, and you’d think this would be the perfect atmosphere to write this piece. I have soft, relaxing music playing, and I can hear the pitter patter of the rain outside. 

Despite all this, I find writing this to be extremely difficult. I’m not used to reading my own work aloud, and the idea of doing so makes me second guess each sentence I type out. Despite my theatre background and love of acting, public speaking is its own monster, one where I have to be myself when I step onstage.  

When I was diagnosed with stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma, my view of myself slowly changed, or rather, the idea of how others viewed me. I have done minimal acting for theatre since my diagnosis; I chose to pursue more behind the scene roles, rather than anything that would leave me center stage. I was too afraid of people’s judgement, so maybe staying out of the spotlight was for the best.

I never wanted anyone’s pity when I was first diagnosed; if I had my way, I would have hidden my cancer away when I found out about it, keeping the news a secret from all but a handful of people. Somehow, that sounded easier to me, so that’s what I did during the diagnosis process before I truly knew that the lump on my neck was cancer. Despite keeping the news to myself, I was paranoid, terrified that people would figure me out. I cut my hair into a pixie to prepare myself for chemo and losing my hair completely. “Surely people know what’s going on,” I would think to myself, an idea that caused me massive anxiety. 

I felt like I owed an explanation to each and every person who asked about my health. This became harder when I reached remission and wasn’t back to my “old self.” Hearing people celebrate my clear scans was difficult when, to me, it didn’t feel like an ending to this chapter of my life or a thing to be celebrated after everything I’d been through. And feeling that way felt wrong to me. If everyone else is so happy about my clear scan, why can’t I experience that joy too?

I began second guessing myself constantly, and I felt defined by the experience I had just gone through. I was exhausted all the time, and my hair was barely starting to grow again. I didn’t think I looked like a normal, healthy college student. When I returned to school and considered auditioning for the next show in the theatre, I thought to myself, “No director would want someone onstage who’s still recovering from cancer treatment.” I felt disconnected from who I was before, and the idea of getting onstage again in front of an audience terrified me. I was sure people could tell what I had been through just by looking at me, and, again, I didn’t want anyone’s pity. 

Despite these thoughts, I took one small role in a student directed performance of Harvey, but after that, I turned to assistant stage managing, directing, and running social media for the theatre. I was still passionate about these things, and they brought me joy in different ways than being onstage did. However, I still missed the exhilaration of creating a character. The process of acting is its own form of mindfulness, and it’s something I deprived myself of. Only after taking an acting class did I realize how much I missed the acting process. I learned so much about what it truly means to build a character and draw from your own experiences to bring your character to life. Acting is a balance of drawing from your own feelings and using that to understand your character’s experience. You get to feel those emotions, without the complications of your circumstances; they are transposed into those of the character you’re creating.

Playing a role is wildly therapeutic once you understand the power of empathy and mindfulness. You create your character through the lens of your own life, and that can take some soul searching. After taking that acting class, I had a much greater understanding of the true art of theatre performance. I learned that it takes time and effort to explore a character before even setting foot onstage in rehearsal. When crafting a character as an actor or digging into a script as a director, I can escape reality for a while, losing myself in the world of the play. 

While I may struggle with public speaking and being vulnerable as myself, it takes a different level of vulnerability to play someone else. And I think mindfulness is about finding those vulnerable pieces of yourself and welcoming them. Mindfulness is a form of self love and self care, and goodness knows I could use a little more of that as I continue to learn more about myself in this new phase of life we call survivorship. 

As I finish writing this, the rain has stopped and the sun is shining. While I didn’t write what I thought I would, I think it’s important to share nonetheless. Writing this piece has been its own form of mindfulness, and it has allowed me to process a lot that I haven’t yet. Mindfulness is everywhere. It doesn’t require meditating or doing yoga to be mindful of yourself and your experiences. Writing is mindfulness. Creativity is mindfulness. Self care is mindfulness. And mindfulness is self care. So how do you take care of yourself? How can you be mindful today?

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