Meditation and Mindfulness for Cancer Care

Meditation & Mindfulness for Cancer Care

“Every day, I spend a few minutes of quiet time in a meditative practice, it totally changes the way that I approach my day, and ultimately, my life.”

— David, age 52, prostate cancer

Meditation can be a part of a yogic practice or it can be practiced independently. Myriad studies show benefits of meditation and mindfulness, including emotional regulation, better interpersonal relationships, increased self-awareness and literal changes in the brain associated with higher levels of happiness. Probably millions of pages have been written on the topic of meditation and mindfulness, especially with the tremendous surge in popularity of both during the past decade.

What is Mindfulness vs Meditation?

Very simply, mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment, in mind, body and spirit, without judgment. It is a practice of awareness and it can be practiced formally as part of a daily ritual or lived every waking moment. In the yogic tradition, the true practice of meditation is defined as “effortless” one-pointed focus. However, as the eight-limbed path of yoga teaches, to get to that point, most of us need to start with the “effortful” practice of concentration before we experience pure meditation.

Concentration means intentionally creating a one-pointed focus on something such as our breath (usually the simplest place to start) and then observing it with gentle attention. Here, we practice our awareness, or mindfulness. At some point in the practice of concentration– and often for a split second at first– we fall into the gap between thoughts where we are just present, and this is a taste of true meditation. In either case, we are developing our Witness Consciousness and letting go of the imprisonment of reactivity to our thoughts and emotions.

As we still the mind, inner wisdom can rise up very gently, and unlike during times when we are busy or distracted, we are quiet enough to hear it. We also develop the capacity to get off of the hamster wheel of thoughts and provide the opportunity to literally “think a new thought,” leading us to greater freedom and clarity in our lives. Our mind, body and spirit literally merge, bringing us into union with ourselves and the Universe.

The definitions here can be a little blurred, but generally speaking, mindfulness is a type of meditative practice with proven benefits for a variety of health conditions, including cancer. Mindfulness is a form of concentration with awareness on the present moment that can be done formally, as in a sitting mindfulness meditation, or as part of one’s daily life.

Probably the best known– and one of the most researched– mindfulness program is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR), as developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts. MBSR includes breath awareness practices, mindful sitting, mindful walking, and mindful yoga. Most of the studies on meditative practices seem to fall under the umbrella of “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” or MBSR, a form of Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs).

Research on Mindfulness-Based Interventions and Cancer

What do the vast numbers of studies on mindfulness tell us? Many general studies show a variety of benefits with those conditions ranging from chronic insomnia to ulcerative colitis, but what are the benefits specifically for those with a cancer diagnosis? MBIs can benefit cancer survivors is in the areas of psychological and physical health. According to a study published in a 2015 edition of Mindfulness, yoga/meditation class attendance and home meditation and yoga practice were all significantly associated with improved post-traumatic growth (PTG), while class attendance correlated with improved spirituality and vigor.

Another study in a 2015 issue of Cancer found that both mindfulness-based cancer recovery (MBCR) and group therapy helped breast cancer survivors to maintain telomere length, compared to a control group with usual care, whose telomere length decreased.

A large study with 268 participants, published in a 2013 issue of Integrative Cancer Therapies, showed significant reductions in mood disturbance (55%) and symptoms of stress (29%) following participation in an MBSR program. Increases in mindfulness accounted for a significant percentage of the reductions in mood disturbance (21%) and symptoms of stress (14%). According to researchers, the practices of being aware of the present moment and refraining from judging inner experience were specifically the most important mindfulness skills for improvements of psychological functioning among cancer patients.

A study published in a 2007 issue of Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that in a group of 49 cancer survivors, MBSR program participation correlated with enhanced quality of life, decreased blood pressure and decreased stress symptoms, altered (improved) cortisol and immune patterns consistent with less stress and mood disturbance.

All of this research on MBIs and cancer supports the use of mindfulness-based interventions as a part of a cancer care plan that improves both quality of life–and may possibly link to more positive outcomes as well. Previous studies showed that MBSR used with cancer patients reduced psychological distress, improved sleep quality and overall quality of life, as well as benefitting attenuated (abnormal) cortisol rhythms.

Interestingly, previous studies also linked immune system dysfunction in cancer survivors to the psychosocial effects of diagnosis and treatment, as opposed to the physical effects of the treatment, so improving psychological health may be a major key to cancer survivorship and quality of life.

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