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Does mindfulness benefit cancer recovery?

Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present by focusing on breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices for relaxation to help reduce stress. It is a form of meditation and has been shown to assist people to better manage anxiety, stress, depression, and quality of life.

Mindfulness can also be used to help manage the demands of cancer, by slowing down racing or negative thoughts and learning alternative ways of coping. Mindfulness may help to deal with side effects of treatment, as well as uncertainties and fears of cancer recurring. A review found high levels of depression and anxiety, up to 25% and 27% respectively, in over 3600 patients with ovarian cancer.

What’s the difference between conventional, complementary and alternative treatments?

Mindfulness is a type of complementary therapy which is sometimes used alongside conventional treatments and medicines, in most cases to manage side effects. Mindfulness cannot “treat” the cancer but has benefits to help the cancer recovery journey by reducing cancer-related side effects such as depression and anxiety. Complementary therapies are widely used by cancer patients with Cancer Council Australia reporting two out of three people in Australia use one or more types during or after cancer treatment. Other forms of complementary therapies include acupuncture, naturopathy, music and art therapy, aromatherapy, relaxation, Pilates and yoga.

Conventional treatments are widely accepted and based on robust scientific evidence often obtained through clinical trials. They control, slow and treat the cancer using surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

The terms “complementary” and “alternative” are sometimes used interchangeably, as though they mean the same thing. However, they are very different. Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional treatments. Alternative therapies might say they can “cure cancer,” or are “natural” but they have not been scientifically tested in clinical trials, and health professionals should not recommend it as a treatment unless it has been scientifically proven to work.

What’s the evidence for cancer patients and mindfulness?

Mindfulness is complementary because it is added to conventional treatments. Most studies to date have focused on mindfulness in breast cancer patients.  In a systematic review three clinicals trials were compared that included a total of 327 breast cancer patients in the US participating in 6-8 week mindfulness programs. The researchers found the programs were helpful to reduce the fear of cancer recurrence, as well as anxiety and depression.

Another systematic review of six randomised clinical trials found mindfulness-based practices have also been shown to be effective in reducing cancer-related pain. The studies were conducted in breast and colon cancer patients in the US or Denmark and had a sample size ranging from 38 to 322 participants. From their findings, mindfulness programs were helpful to reduce the cancer-related treatment pain.

In a small feasibility study of 28 women with recurrent ovarian cancer in the UK, participants took part in a 6-week in-person mindfulness program. Patients found mindfulness useful when managing difficult experiences, and they also found a positive impact on depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as quality of life. Cortisol levels (indicating stress levels) were also recorded in the study, but the researchers found the mindfulness program had no effect on these levels. The mindfulness program was delivered in small groups in-person, and participants reported an added benefit was they enjoyed being able to engage with others in a similar situation to them.

It’s also important to note that mindfulness may not be appropriate for all cancer patients. A study of advanced prostate cancer patients followed 189 men for nine months who participated in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. In this study, men receiving mindfulness programs reported no reduction in psychological distress, anxiety, no improvement in quality of life, and no lowering of distress related to their cancer. The authors of this study however speculate the acceptability of mindfulness programs may be influenced by other issues, for example gender, age, education, and type of illness.

Want to try mindfulness, but not sure where to start?

Mindfulness can be tried anytime at home. When you are feeling anxious or stressed, take 2-3 minutes to focus on your breathing in a quiet place and the interaction it has with your body.

There are many apps available which step you through how to practice mindfulness (like Calm or Headspace).

If you would like more information on participating in mindfulness programs for cancer recovery visit the Cancer Council Queensland: Mindfulness Programs page. The Cancer Council runs one-off introductory mindfulness workshops, or 8-week programs for people facing cancer related challenges. These are free programs run in-person or via teleconference and are open to anyone living with a cancer diagnosis, including their partners, family and caregivers.

Cancer Council NSW also has podcasts on “Finding Calm During Cancer” where a psychologist guides you through a series of meditation and relaxation practices.

If you wish to receive regular information, resources, reassurance and inspiration for up-to-date care that is sound and in line with the latest research, please subscribe to my blog via the form above, or like Dr Andreas Obermair on Facebook.

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