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Meditation for People With Cancer

How Can Meditation Help People Living With Cancer?

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Updated October 11, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Meditation may have several benefits for people living with cancer, and many cancer centers are now offering this “alternative” treatment. What is meditation and what does research say about its benefits for cancer patients?

What is Meditation?

Meditation is most easily defined as a practice of finding a place to sit quietly, clearing your mind of past struggles and future worries, and focusing on the present. In mindfulness meditation, the goal is to quiet your mind and be present in the moment without intruding thoughts. Meditation may include focusing on a sensation, such as your breathing, and simply observing that sensation without judging or analyzing. Some people recite a verse or repeat a mantra, while others let their mind go blank to achieve a meditative state.

Most often, meditation is done while sitting quietly, but may also be done with light activity (for example, walking meditation). Meditation may be self-directed, or guided.

Benefits

Meditation has many benefits for general health and well-being. It has been found to decrease heart rate, lower blood pressure, ease muscle tension, and improve mood. Emotionally, the practice of meditation has helped many people restore a feeling of calm by centering their thoughts and closing their minds to fears about the future and regrets about the past. But meditation may also have specific benefits for people who are living with cancer. Some of these include:
  • Depression and Anxiety - One study found a decrease in symptoms of depression for people with cancer after mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. And unlike some alternative treatments that only have short-term benefits for cancer patients, these effects were still present three months later.

  • Stress - Several studies have found meditation to significantly improve the perception of stress in people coping with cancer. This benefit may go beyond the subjective feeling of well-being when stress is reduced, and contribute to a healthier immune system as well. Stress hormones -- chemicals that are released in our bodies when we experience stress -- may play a role in how well someone responds to cancer treatment, and even affect survival. One study found that meditation decreased the levels of stress hormones in people with breast and prostate cancer, and that the effects were still present a year later. Meditation may also lower the levels of Th1 cytokines, which are inflammatory factors produced by the body that may affect how we respond to cancer and our healing from cancer.

  • Chronic Pain - Chronic pain is a common symptom among people with cancer. The cause may be due to the cancer itself, due to treatments for cancer, or secondary to other causes. Whatever the cause, it’s estimated that roughly 90% of people with lung cancer experience some degree of pain. Meditation appears to help with this pain and may lessen the amount of pain medications needed to control pain.

  • Sleep Problems - Difficulty with sleep is a common problem for people living with cancer. In studies, meditation is associated with less insomnia and an improved quality of sleep.

  • Cognitive Functioning - Difficulty with cognitive functioning is common, and may be due to the cancer itself or treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy (chemobrain.) At least one study has found meditation to improve cognitive functioning with cancer.

  • Fatigue - Cancer fatigue is one of the most annoying symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment. Studies suggest that meditation may improve energy levels and lessen fatigue for people living with cancer.

Cautions

In general, meditation is a very safe practice for people living with cancer. That said, some people may feel anxious, and others may become disoriented as they meditate.

How to Get Started

Several large cancer centers now offer classes in meditation to help get you started. If not, ask your oncologist if she knows of any classes or practitioners in your area who could assist you in beginning meditation. Fortunately, meditation is something that you may learn and practice at home. Methods for beginning meditation, as well as videos that can assist in meditation (such as guided imagery), are available for free online 24 hours a day.

More About Mindfulness

Other Alternative Medicine Options for Cancer

Sources:

American Cancer Society. Meditation. Updated 11/01/08. http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/MindBodyandSpirit/meditation

Beigler, K., Chaoul, M., and L. Cohen. Cancer, cognitive impairment, and meditation. Acta Oncologica. 2009. 48(1):18-26.

Birmie, K., Garland, S., and L. Carlson. Psychological benefits for cancer patients and their partners participating in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) Psychooncology. 2010. 19(9):1004-9.

Carlson, L. et al. One year pre-post intervention follow-up of psychological, immune, endocrine and blood pressure outcomes of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Brain, Behavior, Immunity. 2007. 21(8_:1038-49.

Kvillemo, P. and R. Branstrom. Experiences of a mindfulness-based stress-reduction intervention among patients with cancer. Cancer Nursing. 2011. 34(1):24-31.

Kwekkeboom, K. et al. Mind-body treatments for the pain-fatigue-sleep disturbance symptom cluster in persons with cancer. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. 2010. 39(1):126-38.

Sharplin, G. et al. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: an efficacious community-based group intervention for depression and anxiety in a sample of cancer patients. The Medical Journal of Australia. 2010. 193(5 Suppl):S79-82.

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