Mindfulness and Meditation in Cancer Survivorship

Working our way through life and dealing with life’s stressors requires an assorted toolbox of coping strategies. In times of great stress, people may find it necessary to add to their toolbox. People with cancer often experience distress associated with loss of control; fear; fatigue and uncertainty. Throughout the cancer trajectory, from waiting for a diagnosis through survivorship, individuals may benefit from assorted ways of coping with stress. Mindfulness and meditation can be one of their tools.

Mindfulness benefits include lowered anxiety and depression, improved sleep patterns, increased relaxation, concentration, creativity, increased serotonin, enhanced immune system and reduced blood pressure and cholesterol. Mindfulness-based interventions in the psychological care of cancer patients have been shown to improve psychological health and quality of life, reduce stress and improve both the social and psychological aspects adjustment to disease.

Mindfulness is about creating a curious awareness of the mind and body and living in the present. This is in contrast to our typically past- or future-focused lives, which is sometimes heightened in cancer. Mindfulness also encourages full awareness of whatever is happening (emotions, thoughts and sensations) in the moment, without filters or judgment.

In my therapy practice, as a psychologist at Siteman Cancer Center, I teach and encourage patients to use mindfulness to manage effects of treatment, symptoms of disease, uncertainty and fear. One way we use mindfulness is to practice in therapy sessions, including through breathing and grounding exercises, guided visualization and meditation. Meditation is the continuous musing on a subject and can be categorized into static or dynamic types. We often think of meditation as sitting quietly (static), but it can also be a more movement-centered experience (dynamic), such as yoga or dance.

You may find that you already have a sort of meditative practice. Below are two great options you may consider for your own practice.

  • A beginning meditation is to simply focus on your breath. To try this, sit comfortably in a chair, with your back upright. Rest your hands wherever you’d like, and place your feet firmly on the floor. Close your eyes if you’re comfortable doing so. With eyes closed, you might find you’re better able to concentrate. Turn your attention to your breath and where you feel it in your body. Notice the movement of the abdomen as you breathe in and out. Notice the air as it goes in and out the nostrils. Your breath is the subject of your meditation. If you become distracted from your breath, notice, with acceptance and non-judgment, that your mind has wandered. This is natural. Gently return your attention to your breathing. As you focus on your breath, there is no need to try and change it, just observe. Continue this for a few minutes. Set a timer if you’d like.
  • Another meditation focused on breathing is to count through your breaths. Set up the same way as you did for the first meditation, sitting upright in a chair with feet planted on the floor, eyes closed. Again, turn your attention to your breath. Once focused on your breath, begin to slow and deepen your breath and count slowly as you breathe in and out. Breathe in for a count of three. Breathe out for a count of three. Hold for a count of three. Repeat. Breathe in for one, two, three. Breathe out for one, two, three. Hold one, two, three. Once this is comfortable, move to counting to four for each in breath, outbreath, and pause. Then try counting to five, six, or seven. There is no goal as far as how many counts you should breathe. Just as with the last exercise, your mind will wander. Once you notice this, turn your attention back to your breathing, again with non-judgement. This is just what minds do. Continue counting through your breaths in this way for a few minutes. Again, a timer might be helpful.

Next time you are feeling impatient while waiting in line, try taking a few deep breaths, in for three, out for three, and pause. Repeat as necessary.

These are just two examples of breathing meditations. I encourage you to practice these regularly and search for more mediation strategies so you may find mindfulness and meditation helpful coping strategies to add to your toolbox.

The Mindfulness Based Cancer Recovery (MBCR) group (developed by Linda Carlson) we hold at Siteman is based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) model. In research, MBCR helps to improve stress levels, quality of life and social support for distressed cancer survivors. We see MBCR and mindfulness as practices from which we can all benefit. Call 314-747-5587 to learn more about Siteman’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Recovery Group.

Additional meditation and mindfulness resources:

Written by: Jessica Vanderlan, PhD, Siteman Cancer Center

Photo: carma by Niki dimo (Flickr CC License, CC by 2.0)

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