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Battling the Stress of Cancer? Mindfulness Training May Help

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

Mindfulness meditation and other mind-body introspective practices actively used for more than 2,000 years are now gaining wider acceptance in Western medicine. Expanding evidence supports its benefits for a number of conditions, including stress reduction among cancer patients.

"Mindfulness" involves intentionally bringing awareness to present-moment experience with an attitude of openness and curiosity.

“To be mindful is essentially seeing and experiencing things as they are, using all senses while also being aware of thoughts, emotional tones, and reactions as they arise without judging them as good, bad, right, or wrong,” said Susan Bower-Wu, an associate professor at Emory University’s Woodruff School of Nursing.

Mindfulness is rooted in the Eastern religion and philosophy of Buddhism and is a type of mental training. The goal is to have mindfulness infuse one’s way of being in and relating to the world in everyday life, which is developed and sustained through regular, ongoing meditation practice, Bower-Wu said.

“Sustained and maximum benefits occur with ongoing practice. Research clearly demonstrates a direct relationship between the amount of formal meditation practice and the magnitude of positive effects, as demonstrated by changes in brain structure and function and outcomes associated with sense of well-being," she said.

Mindfulness practices are accessible to anyone regardless of physical condition and are inexpensive to do. Mindfulness based stress reductions (MBSR) and other introductory classes are simply an entry into mindfulness meditation and can be learned, often at no cost or low cost, at many hospitals, universities or at Buddhist meditation centers.

Numerous studies have been done on how mindfulness affects cancer patients. One of the foremost experts, Dr. Linda E. Carlson, co-author of Mindfulness-based cancer recovery: A step-by-step MBSR approach to help you cope with treatment and reclaim your life found patients with mixed cancer diagnoses who participated in mindfulness training had lower mood disturbance and stress symptoms after MBSR and those improvements were maintained at a six month follow-up. Another study by Carlson and colleagues found patients with early-stage breast and prostate cancer experienced improvements in quality of life, symptoms of stress, and sleep quality.

Mindfulness meditation works, experts said, because of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reshape its structure and function depending on what neural circuitry is used. Mindfulness training has been shown to strengthen regions of the brain associated with attention and executive function, interoception (the ability to perceive internal body sensations and mental flexibility.

Mindfulness training has also been shown to attenuate activity in the amygdala (limbic area of brain associated with fear) and helps in everyday activities. When our brain is on “autopilot” we tend to have more stress reactivity and chronic stimulation of the amygdala brain region.

This may be why professional athletes like U.S. Gold Medalist speed skater Apolo Ohno, golf pro Tiger Woods, The Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers use MBSR in their sports training.

Mindfulness meditation is very safe and has few associated risks. Bower-Wu said sometimes people may experience a transient increase in anxiety when learning it, as they let go of usual busyness and distractions and become aware of unsettling thoughts and feelings. And while meditation can’t treat cancer itself, when incorporated into traditional cancer care, patients have experienced positive, long lasting results.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Sources: Carlson, L.E. & Speca, M. (2010) Mindfulness-based cancer recovery: A step-by-step MBSR approach to help you cope with treatment and reclaim your life. New Harbinger, Oakland, CA.

Bower-Wu, S. Mindful Meditation, Oncology (Nurse Edition) Vol. 24 No. 10, Published online:

Carlson LE, Ursuliak Z, Goodey E, et al: The effects of a mindfulness meditation based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients: Six month follow-up. Support Care Cancer 9(2):112–123, 2001.

Carlson LE, Speca M, Patel KD, et al: Mindfulness-based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress, and immune parameters in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Psychosom Med 65(4):571–581, 2003.

Reviewed May 31, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.