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Can meditation help cope with cancer?

Published: 17 Jun 2020

In these strange times of Covid, demonstrations and global unrest, many of us are feeling anxious and uncertain about what our future holds.  If you are also in the middle of your own personal battle with cancer, you may be finding it impossible to calm your mind and find some respite.

Could meditation hold the key?

People have been practicing meditation for thousands of years to help calm minds and bodies to give clarity, insight, and peace of mind. Although it’s an important spiritual component of many ancient Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and also some Christian traditions, you don’t have to be religious to reap the benefits from meditation.

In recent years, it has become extremely popular in Western cultures because as well as helping to relax minds with our busy fast-paced lives, many people say that meditation has improved their general wellbeing and health. In fact, meditation has proven to be a promising practice to help decrease symptoms and side effects of chemo and radiation, improve sleep and strengthen the immune system – all vital to fighting and beating cancer.

What is meditation?

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. Meditation may also have specific benefits for people who are living with cancer – both in mind and body. When practiced regularly it has been found to decrease heart rate, lower blood pressure, ease muscle tension, and improve mood.

Over the last 20 years, clinical trials have studied meditation as a way of reducing stress in both the mind and body – but there is no evidence that meditation can help to prevent, treat or cure cancer, or any other disease so meditation should be practiced alongside conventional treatments prescribed by your medical team.

Meditation may help to relieve the following conditions:

Depression and Anxiety

It may decrease the symptoms of depression and anxiety for people with cancer – unlike some alternative treatments that only have short-term benefits for cancer patients, the benefits of daily or regular meditation can be long-lasting.

Stress

For some cancer patients, meditation has significantly lowered their stress levels. Stress hormones — chemicals that are released in our bodies when we experience stress – may play a role in how well we respond to cancer treatment, and may even affect survival.

Meditation may also lower the levels of Th1 cytokines, which are inflammatory factors produced by the body, which may also affect how we respond to cancer treatments.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a common symptom among people with cancer, which can be due to the cancer itself or the resulting treatments. Whatever the cause, meditation appears to help with this pain and may lessen the amount of pain medications needed to control it.

A research study conducted by Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston Salem and Psychology Department Marquette University reported that after four-days of mindfulness meditation training, pain was significantly reduced by 57% and pain-intensity ratings by 40.

Sleep Problems

Difficulty with sleep is another very common problem for people living with cancer. Because meditation calms the mind and can help reduce physical pain, many people who practice say it helps with their insomnia and gives them an improved quality of sleep.

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.

How do you practice meditation?

It can take time to get used to practicing meditation before you start to feel the benefits. At first, you might feel more stressed as you see how busy your mind is. But if you keep trying to meditate for even a short time each day, you will find that it gets easier. Gradually you’ll feel calmer and less stressed. Regular practice is key. For real novices, it is suggested to start with a few minutes and gradually increase over time.

  • Before starting meditation consult with your medical team.  They may be able to guide you on the most appropriate form of meditation for you – or they will be able to put you in touch with recommended people who have training in practicing and teaching meditation
  • Although you can do it yourself at home, it can be beneficial to get a trained meditation teacher to teach you how to do it first. This may only take a few 20 to 30-minute sessions. Or it can take longer depending on the type of meditation.
  • Most types of meditation involve finding a quiet place away from the distractions of everyday life. Depending on the type of meditation you can sit or lie quietly – it’s important to make sure that you feel comfortable.  Your teacher may encourage you to allow thoughts and feelings to come and go without trying to push them away or stop them, or they may lead your mind to focus on an object or a blank or tranquil place. This may seem very difficult to do at first. Most people say it gets easier with practice.
  • Most teachers recommend that you practice the meditation for at least 15 to 20 minutes twice a day to get the best results. But even 5 minutes once a day is better than nothing, especially if you are feeling ill or finding it hard to concentrate. A shorter period every day is better than a long time once a week.

Different types of meditation

There are many different types of meditation. Most types involve being still and quiet, but some involve movement such as tai chi and yoga.

Mindfulness means being aware and present in each moment.

Mindfulness meditation can be done while sitting down. You keep gently bringing your attention and awareness back to the present moment whenever you notice that you are daydreaming or distracted. One way of doing this is to bring awareness to the sensation of breathing, using this as an anchor for the mind to come back to.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an 8-week program which teaches mindfulness meditation to help you cope better and be more at ease in your life.

Many hospitals and clinics offer MBSR courses, which consist of a combination of sitting meditation (breath awareness, focused attention), body scanning (awareness of sensations in the body), mindful movement, walking meditation, insight meditation which looks at how our thoughts and emotions affect us, which can help us to respond more effectively to situations

William Kuyken PhD, a professor at the University of Oxford conducted a study that found that MBSR helped to prevent depression recurrence as effectively as maintenance antidepressant medication. He says, “People at risk for depression are dealing with a lot of negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs about themselves, and this can easily slide into a depressive relapse. MBSR helps them to recognize that’s happening, engage with it in a different way and respond to it with equanimity and compassion.”

Focused meditation uses an object, such as a flower or candle flame, to bring your attention back to. This can help the mind to focus better, which is an important part of meditation.

Visualization and guided imagery, you create specific images in your mind. You focus your imagination to create pictures or images for a specific reason, such as to relieve symptoms of cancer or help yourself relax.

In guided imagery (or guided visualization), a voice directs your attention in a specific way to relax you. This could be someone there with you, or a sound recording. You create images in your mind that can help you to relax, feel less anxious, sleep better, and reduce pain. You use all of your senses – sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. For example, you may want to think of a place or activity that made you happy in the past.

If you have to stay in bed or can’t leave your home, imagery or visualization techniques may help. You may feel less closed in if you have been indoors for a long time.

Transcendental meditation involves repeating a specific word or phrase (mantra) that your meditation teacher gives you. It aims to increase your energy and lower your stress level. It also helps to develop concentration and focus your mind.

Prayerful meditation, the aim is to develop your spirituality. Its meaning will vary according to your religion or views. In some traditions, the aim is to open you up to God or a higher power. In others, the aim is to develop positive qualities such as compassion and wisdom.

Meditation and movement. Some traditions combine meditation with movement to harmonize body and mind. These include Tai Chi, Qi Gong, walking meditation and yoga.

If you’re interested in finding out more there is loads of information on the internet. Check out meditation classes in your area, or visit YouTube and view a few meditation videos, so you get a feel for what’s involved and what might suit you best. There are also web services you can subscribe to, so you can practice guided meditation in your own home whenever you have the time.

If you have any questions about cold capping, or anything else related to your chemo treatment, why not join the Facebook Chemotherapy Support Group – with thousands of members reaching out to each other, someone will no doubt be able to offer you first hand advice.