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Meditation can have several benefits for people living with cancer, and many cancer centers now offer this “alternative” treatment.
Potential benefits include reduced anxiety and depression, decreased stress, increased energy, and decreased chronic pain, among other symptoms.
At the same time, there are very few risks. And unlike many complementary treatments used to control cancer symptoms, anyone can start at any time.
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 the mind and be present in the moment without intrusive thoughts. Meditation can be about focusing on a sensation, such as breathing, and simply observing that sensation without judging or analyzing it. Some people recite a verse or repeat a mantra, while others blank their minds to reach a meditative state.
Most of the time, meditation is done while sitting quietly, but it can also be done with light activity (for example, walking meditation). Meditation can be self-directed or guided.
benefits of meditation
Meditation has many benefits for general health and wellness. It has been proven to slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, relieve muscle tension, and improve mood.
Emotionally, the practice of meditation has helped many people regain a sense 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 living with cancer. Some of the benefits of meditation in cancer are:
Depression and anxiety
One study found a decrease in depression symptoms in people with cancer after mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
And unlike some alternative treatments that have only short-term benefits for cancer patients, these effects were still present three months later.
Several studies have found that meditation significantly improves the perception of stress in people dealing with cancer.
This benefit may go beyond the subjective sense of well-being when stress is reduced, and may also contribute to a healthier immune system.
Stress hormones – chemicals that are released in our bodies when we experience stress – can influence response to cancer treatment and even survival.
One study found that meditation reduced levels of stress hormones in people with breast and prostate cancer, and that the effects were still present a year later.
Meditation can also reduce levels of Th1 cytokines, which are inflammatory factors produced by the body that can affect how we respond to and heal from cancer.
Chronic pain is a common and very frustrating symptom among people with cancer.
The cause may be due to the cancer itself, cancer treatments, or secondary to other causes.
Whatever the cause, it is estimated that approximately 90% of people with lung cancer experience some degree of pain.
Meditation seems to help with this pain and can reduce the number of medications needed to control the pain.
Difficulty sleeping is a common problem for people living with cancer. In studies, meditation is associated with less insomnia and better sleep quality.
Difficulty in cognitive functioning is common and may be due to the cancer itself or to cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy.
At least one study has found that meditation improves cognitive functioning with cancer.
Cancer fatigue is one of the most bothersome symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment.
Studies suggest that meditation can improve energy levels and decrease fatigue in people living with cancer.
In general, meditation is a very safe practice for people with cancer.
That said, some people may feel anxious and others may become disoriented while meditating.
It is important to note that this is for people using meditation as a complementary or integrative treatment alongside conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and others.
There is currently no evidence that meditation or any other therapy can treat cancer itself, and the use of these therapies to the exclusion of traditional treatments has been linked to a much higher risk of death for people with cancer.
How to start
Several large cancer centers now offer meditation classes to help you get started.
If not, ask your oncologist if they know of any classes or practitioners in your area who can help you start meditating.
Fortunately, meditation is something that can be learned and practiced at home. Methods to start meditating, as well as videos that can aid meditation (such as guided imagery), are freely available on the Internet 24 hours a day.
Some psychologists and doctors argue that almost everyone could benefit from meditation, and that’s certainly true for most people with cancer.
Meditation is something simple that you can do on your own, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time out of your day.
Perhaps living with cancer gives many people the incentive to try this method of stress reduction that could benefit people in areas of life that go far beyond cancer.