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Mindfulness Meditation for Patients with Cancer

Mindfulness Meditation for Patients with Cancer

10 May 2019


Meditation is no longer associated with highly spiritual people sitting cross legged under a tree. It is becoming increasingly popular even with us common folk, and is proving to be very effective for managing stress and anxiety. A cancer diagnosis is clearly one of the most stressful things that can happen, and clinical studies are showing that Meditation and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction are very useful and should not be taken for granted.

It is easy, safe and free - so why not give it a go?

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

The term 'meditation' can sometimes put people off, simply because they may think that they can't do it, don't have the time to sit still, or may feel confronted by what could come up emotionally. But Mindfulness Meditation is a little different and very easy, it simply involves being mindful and being present, for any amount of time you like. It is a skill that can be learned, like a muscle that can be trained, so that eventually it becomes second nature.

Mindfulness Meditation is the practice of becoming aware of our thoughts and our surroundings, and not being overwhelmed by the chatter in our mind or by what is happening around us. By practicing mindfulness we can train our mind to reduce our worries and fears about the past and the future. Instead it helps us to focus on the present moment, on the here and now, and on the things we can control.

Now that sounds calming already!

What are the benefits of Mindfulness Meditation in cancer care?

Physical benefits
When we feel stressed or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and puts us into the 'fight or flight' mode. This releases cortisol and adrenaline in our body which are highly inflammatory and can cause oxidative stress, which in turn support the growth of tumour cells. 

On the other hand, we know that mindfulness practice and deep breathing helps us to activate the vagal nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, the system which is called the 'rest and digest' state. This helps us relax and conserve energy, and also has a positive effect on the immune system, reducing inflammation and allowing healing (both physical and emotional) to occur.


Psychological benefits
Some of the most difficult elements of a cancer diagnosis are the psychological impacts, ie the fear, the stress and the worry. By consciously turning your attention away from the chatter of the mind and instead focusing on being in the present moment, it can help us become more calm and at peace. This can be very beneficial when we have low mood, anxiety, depression, worry, sadness or any negative feelings.

Overall, mindfulness promotes emotional, physical and psychological healing which can be incredibly empowering for people, especially those who are experiencing any medical concerns and particularly cancer.


Is there any evidence to support this within an Oncology Setting?

Scientific communities are now recognising the benefits of meditation and even prescribing it as an adjunct to cancer treatment. Many cancer centers around the world in fact offer Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs because clinical trials are supporting the immensely valuable outcomes.


Studies support both psychological and biological effects:

  • Early studies of MBSR found a 65% reduction in mood disturbance, and a 31% reduction of symptoms of stress.
  • A study of mood disturbance in women with breast cancer found significant improvements in depression scores and coping capacity, as well as physiological reduction in posttraumatic growth and improvement in immune response.
  • A study looking at inflammatory markers in breast cancer survivors found that MBSR improved recovery.
  • Another study of breast cancer survivors showed a significant improvement of sleep parameters including sleep time and bouts of waking.
  • Multiple other studies are showing consistent improvement of psychological functioning, reduction of stress, enhanced coping, and overall improved well-being
  • Many patients subjectively report that mindfulness helps with letting go and acceptance, and dealing with uncertainty and fear. It is a skill that many people benefit from for the rest of their lives.

How do I start?

There are many forms of Mindfulness Meditation for patients with cancer and it can involve anything from deep breathing, body scans, to more movement based meditation like tai chi or chi qong.

Here is a basic body scan and postural practice to begin with.

You can do this for as long as you would like.  Do this practice with no judgement. The aim is to bring awareness in the present moment

Take a seat wherever is comfortable for you and close your eyes.
First, take notice what your legs are doing. You can tense and squeeze your muscles and toes and notice how this feels.
Straighten your upper body to your natural curvature. Your head and shoulders can rest up comfortably on top of your vertebrae.
Drop your hands in your lap. Move your fingers around, squeeze into your hand then relax them. Notice the rise and fall of your belly or chest, and the air moving through your nose, mouth and belly and how relaxed they feel.
Take a few deep breaths deep into your diaphragm to relax your abdomen.
Be still for a few moments, however long you feel you need to. Bring your attention to your breath and/or the sensations in your body. Breathing out for a longer period than breathing in (e.g. breathing in for 4 seconds and breathing out for 6) helps to really activate the parasympathetic nervous system and bring upon a sense of relaxation.
When you are ready gently open your eyes. Take a moment to notice how your body feels and also how you would like to feel during the remainder of the day.

That's it! This is very simple but a very effective way to introduce Mindfulness Meditation into your day.

We understand that beginning a meditation practice can be hard to navigate and a little daunting. It can be helpful to have some guidance, especially if you have never done this before. Furthermore, most of the studies mentioned above involve a 6-12 week program of Mindfulness Meditation or specifically MBSR, suggesting that the initial learning and consistency of this approach is important. We have a fantastic Meditation teacher here, Liz Stilwell, who has many years experience in cancer, trauma and illness counselling. Her full bio is available here, give us a call to book a one-on-one session or to enquire about group sessions.



About the Author: MIOG support team

At MIOG, all staff are qualified practitioners, including our valued receptionists and administration support team. With Bachelors of Health Science in either Naturopathy or Nutritional Medicine, the team are educated and experienced, with valuable insight into nutritional, herbal, and lifestyle interventions for oncology care.

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