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The Benefits of Meditation for Cancer Patients

Publication: Austin Medical Times, Houston Medical Times

Cancer treatment usually brings to mind conventional treatment options such as chemotherapy or radiation. However, today’s cancer treatment can include a holistic approach called integrative health.

Integrative health combines conventional treatments with complementary approaches to provide more comprehensive care for body, mind, and spirit, with an emphasis on treating the whole person.

Meditation is a common mind-body practice often used alongside conventional treatment to help manage cancer-related symptoms and deal with the feelings that accompany the disease. Meditation and stress reduction practices have also been shown to improve the immune system recovery of cancer patients.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology, National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and Society for Integrative Oncology have all recognized the ability of meditation to improve mental and physical health and overall quality of life when used within an integrative health approach.

Anyone can begin a meditation practice at any time, and evidence shows it can have many benefits for one’s general health and well-being.

Forms of meditation

When one hears the word meditation, they might picture someone sitting peacefully under a tree, cross-legged with their eyes closed. While this is indeed one form of meditation, it is not the only one.

Meditation techniques can include:

  • Breathwork
  • Gratitude practice
  • Loving-kindness and compassion
  • Movement meditation, such as chair yoga or walking meditation
  • Nature therapy
  • Progressive muscle relaxation

Patients may benefit from one or several of these techniques and the various options may be helpful when dealing with different symptoms or side effects from treatment.

Symptoms addressed by meditation

In a survey to understand the impact cancer has on self-perception, body image, and mental and emotional health, 43% of respondents said they felt unprepared to deal with the physical side effects experienced during treatment and 56% felt unprepared for the mental side effects. When asked if patients sought out support to help cope with the mental or physical side effects of cancer treatment, only one-third sought out resources.

Specific types of mind-body practices, such as meditation, have been found to effectively address several physical and mental symptoms related to cancer or cancer treatment, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Cognitive issues
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Fear related to treatment or fear of recurrence
  • Pain
  • Sexual issues
  • Sleep disorders

Mindfulness, stress, and the immune system

Long-term stress can lead to inflammation and weaken the immune system. However, a recent study showed that breast cancer patients who practiced mindfulness stress reduction had more rapid recovery of immune cells. Immune system function is now recognized as one of the pillars of cancer therapy.

Mindful meditation and mealtime

One often missed opportunity for meditation or mindful practice is during mealtime. Cancer treatment frequently changes appetite and taste, which can make eating and sharing meals with others challenging. A mindful eating practice can help improve the experience of eating. It may offer the opportunity to build new memories and make deeper connections with loved ones over shared meals, even if smells and tastes have shifted.

Time and practice

Just like learning any new skill, meditation is a practice that takes time to master. From breathwork and guided meditations to taking a class online or in person at a local studio, there are a variety of techniques to try.

If one meditation technique isn’t feeling quite right, it’s fine to switch it up. What a patient needs one day may not be the same as what is needed the next, and similarly, what may resonate for one patient may not for another.

It helps to practice meditation techniques on good days as well as the more challenging ones. Creating new habits and learning new skills is difficult even when you feel your best. But when meditation is a part of a daily care routine, it’s easier to remember and practice on tough days, too, allowing one to access the benefits of meditation when it’s needed the most.

Let your care team know if meditation is a practice you’d like to add to your care plan. However, keep in mind that because it can increase awareness of your mind and body, past trauma or feelings that have been pushed aside may arise. If this happens, your care team can help you access the appropriate support needed.

Engaging in meditation is a straightforward practice accessible to everyone. For those living with cancer, meditation may hold potential benefits that extend beyond the realm of cancer-related challenges.

This article appeared in the May issues of Austin Medical Times and Houston Medical Times.