Meditation for Cancer Patients

Monday, February 13, 2017 - 9:55am

What if a simple daily practice of clearing your mind and breathing slowly could help you feel better, sleep better, reduce pain and anxiety and reduce your risk of cancer recurrence?

It turns out that meditation – just such a practice – exists and you can do it anywhere, for any amount of time, without special equipment or clothing and minimal training.

More than 3,000 scientific studies have been conducted on the benefits of meditation, and include positive outcomes for the treatment of depression, anxiety, lack of concentration, high blood pressure, inflammatory disorders, asthma, PMS, Arthritis, Fibromyalgia and more.

Having seen the results, many doctors are also encouraging patients to incorporate this ancient practice into their lives to promote well-being, positive outlooks and even faster recoveries. Research has shown that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation may elevate serum serotonin levels – a compound in the brain that can affect mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function – resulting in a significant decrease in depression, anxiety and stress as well as decreased acute or chronic pain.

In 2014, a breakthrough Canadian study conducted by researchers at the University of Calgary, (Alberta) and Alberta Health services concluded that meditation may be a powerful complement to treatment plans aimed at altering the cellular activity of cancer survivors.

The study, which was published in the journal Cancer, was one of the first to suggest scientifically, that a mind-body connection does exist. The study included 88 breast cancer survivors who, after they completed treatments for at least three months, met weekly for 12 weeks of mindfulness-based activities. The participants attended group discussions along with meditation and yoga sessions and committed to practicing meditation and yoga at home for 45 minutes daily.

Following the study of this group, researchers found that the telomeres – the protein caps at the end of chromosomes that determine how quickly a cell ages – stayed the same length in cancer survivors who meditated or took part in support groups over the three-month period.  On the other hand, the telomeres of a control group of cancer survivors who didn’t participate in these groups, shortened during the three-month study. Shortened telomeres are associated with several disease states, as well as cell aging, while longer telomeres are thought to be protective against disease.

What excited researchers most, was that they were able to demonstrate over a relatively short period of time, that a consistent mindfulness practice could influence cell behavior in such a potentially powerful way. “Further research is needed to better quantify these potential health benefits, but this is an exciting discovery that provides encouraging news,” said Linda E. Carlson, a psychosocial researcher who worked with scientists on the study at the University of Calgary.

Meditation is easy, convenient, inexpensive, safe and can be done in a variety of ways, based on individual preferences and has the added benefit of being risk free. Cancer patients have reported benefits including greater tolerance of side effects from chemo or radiation therapy during their meditative practices as well as reports that patients feel like their treatments worked better when they were meditating.

Ready to give meditation a try?

If you’re just starting out, keep in mind that there’s more than one way to meditate. The key to success is finding, through practice, what works best for you. You may want to begin by seeking out a group class, or using a guided meditation of which there are unlimited options on the Internet, most of which are free of charge.

You can start to meditate for as little as two minutes and gradually increase your time as you gain experience. To get you started, here are some basics:

  1. Sit tall
    The most common position for meditation is sitting on the floor, in a chair or on a stool, but comfort is key, so find a position that works for you and focus on keeping your back straight. Imagine a thread extending from the top of your head that holds your torso and head erect in a straight line. Roll back your shoulders if that helps you to maintain a straight position.
    Note: If sitting is uncomfortable, you can lie down in a straight position on your back. Support your back by putting a folded blanket or small pillow under your calves if necessary
     
  2. Relax
    Close your eyes and focus on relaxing every part of your body, beginning with your toes and feet, and working your way all the way up to your neck, jaw, face, eyes, and forehead.
     
  3. Be still
    This is often the difficult step, because most of us aren’t used to it. Just sit quietly. Be in the moment, aware of your surroundings and your place in it. If you are distracted by thoughts, allow them to enter and then release them. (You can always reclaim them later!)
     
  4. Breathe
    Breathe quietly, deeply, steadily. Ideally, breathe in and out through your nose, but if this is difficult, do what feels comfortable for you. Take your time and take notice of how your breath feels in your nose, throat, chest and belly, and then all the way down to your toes and back up again.
     
  5. Repeat a mantra 
    This is a personal preference. For some people, having a word or phrase in their mind helps to remove distractions. For others, just noticing their breath will suffice.
     
  6. Don’t worry about doing it “right”
    Just do it right for you. Meditation is not a test. Your mind may wander, but simply notice, pause and return to your gentle breath.
     
  7. Return for more!
    Persistence pays off. To reap the benefits of meditation, try to practice on a daily basis. Just like exercise, meditation will be most effective if you include it in your daily life. When you feel that you don’t have the time to practice, remember that you are deserving of the benefits – which may include better sleep, pain relief, better focus, reduced stress and anxiety, more clear thinking, increased optimism and improved mood and that even two minutes can help improve your life.