silhouette photo of person sitting on rock at the seashore
photo by Josh Adamski, courtesy of Upsplash

I just heard the commercial friends have been telling me about, the one for an injectable migraine drug. A few weeks ago, I would have been ready to sign on, though the drug claims are underwhelming, purporting to, “reduce total migraine days,” with each monthly injection. Might I expect 1 less day? 5? 17?

Whatever the merits of the drug, the ad got something right. It was all about being present, about not missing out on events and happenings in your life because you’re sick in bed (or on the bathroom floor) with a migraine. For much of the summer, and especially this fall, that was me. I would get strings of them, one running into the next with hardly a break. One time, following chemo, I had seven in the space of three days.

Since they are blinding, I can’t go anywhere, and if they happen while I’m driving, that’s the worst. Even when I feel okay, the fear of getting one is almost as bad. How do you plan anything?

That was my situation last month. I had a table reserved at Bob’s and my favorite Colorado restaurant, The Hearthstone in Breckinridge, for Bob’s birthday. We rarely eat out unless we’re traveling or it’s one of our birthdays, so I had a lot riding on not getting a migraine. I’d had several that week, including one the day before, which started when I was speed walking on a treadmill at the local rec center. My chances weren’t looking good.

I’ve been getting migraines since I was 17—usually just a few a year unless there’s something major going on hormonally—such as pregnancy or menopause. So, it was no wonder that my migraine frequency got much worse when I started the last phase of my breast cancer treatment—an aromatase inhibitor, to inhibit the production of estrogen, since my tumor was hormone-triggered. Number of added migraine days per month? About a dozen—up from a handful a year. Far worse than anything I’d ever experienced before. But cancer is one of the few things scarier than migraines, so I kept taking the pills.

There are pills for migraines too. But they would leave me feeling groggy and then I would rebound with another migraine the next day. Now I carry them only for emergency use, in case I find myself parked on the side of the road waiting for the strobing aura to go away, so I can see to drive.

Instead, I’d been using the biofeedback technique I learned when I was pregnant and couldn’t take drugs. I would find the darkest, quietest place possible (at the gym, it was a chair in a hallway) and I’d sit with my eyes closed, concentrating on warming my hands. As my hands went from cold to hot, the headache and blindness cleared, and I didn’t have any pain. Still the rest of my day was shot, because I always need to sleep off a migraine.

What I really needed was a way to prevent migraines.

My friends knew how disruptive they’d become and tried to help, which was how I’d heard about the new injectable drug. They’d also suggested CBD oil since it’s legal in Colorado, and I’m there so often. I was ready to try anything.

That’s when it occurred to me: if hand-warming could stop migraines, could it prevent them too? And since hand-warming was a time of quiet, and intense focus, wasn’t that like meditation? Maybe it was time to put aside the image of my hippy-dippy mother sitting in the middle of an urban sidewalk, palms up, chanting, “ommmm.” Maybe it was time to give meditation a try.

I wasn’t sure how to go about it, but I gave it a shot that day, hoping to make it out to dinner for Bob’s birthday. I set my phone’s timer to 20 minutes, found a quiet, comfortable place to sit and I concentrated on not thinking about anything. That’s tricky, but I did a passable job, imagining waves hitting a shore with each intake of breath, and flowing back out with my exhalations. I didn’t get a migraine that night.

I tried it the next day, and no migraine. And the next. And the next. And since it kept working, I kept it up.

And then I started noticing something else. I felt more relaxed and I discovered an unexpected sensation, midway through meditation that I would describe as a sense of wellbeing. A warm, “all is good,” feeling. Life still has the same ups and downs, but I’m going easier on myself. I’m going with the flow a little better.

The lesson for me was to become more open to non-pharmaceutical treatments. Given that I’ve been through a year of the most invasive and toxic treatments that modern medicine has to offer, it was quite a revelation—and a welcome one. Don’t get me wrong, I would die of breast cancer if I treated it with meditation. But I wonder now: does meditation create an internal climate that might help prevent disease? When I read, The Body Keeps the Score, I learned that children who experience extensive trauma, suffer serious health consequences as adults. It stands to reason that calming the mind could have a reverse effect. The author of the book, a psychiatrist, is a big advocate for non-drug therapies, such as meditation, yoga, biofeedback, even creative pursuits, such as theater groups. In many situations, the results are better than drugs, often dramatically better, and there aren’t any alarming side effects.

After making it to Bob’s dinner out last month, I was also migraine-free for my birthday dinner a few days later. I was fine for Thanksgiving, and lunches out with friends. I didn’t miss any “work,” time (I write from home). I didn’t miss any hikes or any movies. I didn’t miss any anything, because I didn’t get any migraines, not one.

I’m confident that no pharmaceutical can match that record. And yet, I would have doubted my results if I hadn’t experienced them myself. I’d have been ready to try the latest new drug even with its vague claims.

After a lifetime of good health (apart from migraines) this has been a year of experiencing and learning about illness and cures. I’m grateful for invasive treatments which rid my body of cancer. I’m also grateful to the gentle, age-old practice of meditation. Now migraines are no longer ruling my life. I couldn’t be happier about that.