Cancer Have You Stressed Out? Try Meditating.

Mindful meditation has numerous benefits during treatment.

At some point, you may have experienced that stress makes a bad situation worse. And because cancer may be one of the most stressful situations you may ever endure, it can bring overwhelming anxiety around diagnosis, treatment and the possibility of recurrence.

Controlling the stress is essential: your body's numerous chemical responses to chronic stress may affect cancer growth and perhaps even influence the ability to cope with treatment. This is why mindful meditation may be worth considering. 

What is Mindful Meditation?

"Mindful meditation is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally," explains Saki F. Santorelli, EdD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and executive director of the university's Center for Mindfulness. She says negative thoughts need not be denied, but they can crowd out what’s before us at the moment, such as the beautiful sky or the feeling of being alive even though you're compromised in some way. “These judgments are often inaccurate and can prevent us from seeing things clearly,” says Santorelli.

Research has concluded that mindful meditation can reduce distress and improve quality of life and mood among cancer patients. Patients can counter stress by paying attention to the present and drawing on their inner resources and natural capacities for greater well-being via mindful meditation.

Benefits of Mindful Meditation

According to Susan Bauer-Wu, PhD, Associate Professor of Nursing at Emory University in Atlanta, mindful meditation has numerous benefits.

Mindful meditation can affect biological stress responses in the brain affecting:

  • Fear and stress responses
  • Focusing attention
  • Adapting to unexpected changes
  • Monitoring and perceiving the environment
  • Perceiving internal body sensations 

Mindful meditation can help settle your mind. 

Not only settle your mind, but according to Bauer-Wu, it can help you get grounded in present moment experiences and give you a sense of control when it seems like many other aspects of your life are beyond your control. "If the mind is at ease, the body is less constricted and, as a result, will be more comfortable. We know that anxiety is associated with higher levels of symptoms in cancer patients, such as pain, nausea and disturbed sleep. By reducing anxiety through mindful meditation, physically they may feel better, too.”

Mindful meditation can help you gain perspective. 

"You can recognize the stories that play in your mind and notice what is happening more clearly and objectively," Bauer-Wu says. "Furthermore, meditation helps cancer patients to be more in tune with their bodies, so they can make wise decisions as to what their bodies need.”

Practicing Mindful Meditation

Mindful meditation can be learned by almost anyone, and the more open you are to the process, the better the results.

First, try to carve out at least 10 minutes each day at a time and location where you are less likely to have interruptions or feel sleepy. A few tips: 

  • Settle into a comfortable position. Allow the spine to be relatively straight, but not rigid, so breathing is open and easy. Hands and arms can be placed on the lap or folded together or at the side if lying down. Keep eyes closed or lower them with a soft gaze.
  • Gently bring awareness to the breath as it moves in and out of the body.
  • Notice where the breath is most vivid. This may be at the nostrils or at the chest as it rises and falls or may be at the belly.
  • Stay present with the experience of breathing. Simply breathe in a natural and comfortable way.
  • If attention wanders, gently escort it back to awareness of breathing. Allow thoughts or emotions to arise without pushing away or holding on to them. Simply notice them. 

Though there aren’t many restrictions to the use of this technique, be sure to recognize there may be physical limitations and different ways to approach this type of meditation. For instance, if breathing is challenging, you may want to identify a different point of your body to anchor your mind to (for example, the relaxation of your arms or legs).