Mindfulness and Advanced Breast Cancer

How Learning to Be Present Can Help Patients Cope

We all deal with stress on a daily basis, but those living with cancer are forced to deal with more than their fair share. Cancer is a life-threatening event, and most patients have a strong emotional reaction to the diagnosis.

Unfortunately, many patients continue to experience emotional symptoms such as anxiety, depression, fatigue and sleep disturbances well after treatment ends, and those living with advanced cancer often have stress levels high enough to severely impact physical and emotional health.

Many different kinds of psychological interventions can help cancer patients deal with the physical and emotional symptoms of cancer and its treatment. One type of intervention that has shown great promise is mindfulness.

What Is Mindfulness?

The term mindfulness is thrown around a lot these days, but what does it mean? Put simply, mindfulness is living in the present moment (and not the future or past, as many of us tend to do). It can be learned by regularly practicing simple exercises like meditation, breathing, visualization and relaxation.

Living in the present, or just observing our thoughts and feelings, is difficult for many of us. We don’t live in a society that encourages us to just sit quietly and accept things as they are. We have a natural tendency to resist or control anything that is unpleasant or frightening.

Fortunately, mindfulness techniques are simple and easy to learn. If done consistently, these exercises can reduce anxiety and depression, manage pain and even improve sleep, to name just a few benefits.

Can Mindfulness Help Cancer Patients?

Mindfulness-based therapies are now being used in many healthcare settings as an important part of treatment. When used in a cancer setting, mindfulness can help patients cope with their disease and its treatment. I often focus on mindfulness and acceptance when working with cancer patients.

Many mindfulness studies have been done in patients with breast cancer, because this is a very common type of cancer. One recent study found that breast cancer patients reported feeling much less stress and anxiety after participating in a mindfulness program. Unfortunately, patients with advanced stage breast cancer, who could perhaps benefit the most from mindfulness interventions, are often left out of these studies. Their high symptom burden usually prevents them from traveling to the study site to attend regular sessions.

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Online Mindfulness Program: an Intervention for Stage 4 Breast Cancer Patients

I really wanted to extend a mindfulness intervention to patients with advanced stage cancer who are experiencing the most severe symptoms. Millions of women (and thousands of men) are currently living with invasive breast cancer, and many have advanced disease. To reach this population, I developed an online mindfulness intervention program for patients with stage 4 breast cancer.

In this six-week program, we will meet together online one hour per week using Web conferencing. Patients will be able to see and hear each other, as they would in a support group setting, but they won’t have to leave the comfort of home. In each weekly session, we will talk about a specific mindfulness practice. We’ll then spend about 15 minutes practicing together. Between our weekly meetings, patients will be asked to put 10 to 45 minutes aside to sit quietly, breathe, meditate or practice another intervention that we’ve learned.

There is a lot of research out there to support the mind-body connection, and Chi-Chen Hong, PhD, an epidemiologist in Roswell Park’s Department of Cancer Prevention and Control, will be working with us to see whether this mindfulness intervention has an impact on physical health and medical outcomes.

I usually meet face to face with my patients, but many people with advanced disease simply can’t travel to the center on a regular basis. My hope is to extend this intervention to other groups of patients and those with other types of cancer so that anyone who is interested in learning mindfulness techniques can access our online program from home. We are recruiting now and will soon start the first online group session.

If you are a patient with advanced stage breast cancer and are interested in participating in this study, or if you would like more information, please contact Carrie Ernhout at or 716-845-1300, ext. 7849.