Cancer and Mindfulness


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Terms like meditation, mindfulness and mindfulness-based-stress-reduction (MBSR) are common these days. Articles pour out from sources like the New York Times, NPR, Time Magazine and others discussing subtle ways to quiet the mind.


A growing body of research points to direct benefits related to meditation practices. These benefits extend to cancer patients (for example, this 2015 study on breast cancer patients). As a result, a number of cancer centers now offer programs that include types of meditation and mindfulness practices (like University of California San Francisco, and MD Anderson).

With these practices making their way into mainstream culture, a lot of questions arise - especially for those experiencing a serious disease like colorectal cancer.

We asked Andrea Lee, BSN, RN, Oncology Program Manager at Methodist Dallas Medical Center some common questions from patients about meditation practices. Andrea is a complex GI nurse who has spent many years dedicating her profession to helping colorectal cancer patients, and she is passionate about mindfulness-based practices and how they affect the body and the mind.

Q. What is a mindfulness-based practice?

A. Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose (intention), in a particular way or with a certain set of attitudes. It leads to a significant shift in perception where you’re able to witness the activity of your mind more clearly and objectively. This does not mean you detach from an experience to the point of numbness. Actually, you develop a deep intimacy with the present moment. This stops your automatic processes that control your thinking and perception.

  • Intention reminds us of our why
  • Attention is how we observe our present moment experience (both internally and externally)
  • Attitudes are the qualities we bring to that attention (i.e. compassion and non-judgment)

The attitudes of mindfulness are crucial components that become the filters we use for information in our everyday life. They help us develop the capacity to continually strive for pleasant experiences, or to push away negative experiences. This means we can meet the present moment with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance.

Q. What are the benefits of a meditation/mindfulness practice for a colorectal cancer patient/survivor?

A. First, I think it’s important to note the benefits of mindfulness practice vary from person to person.

When someone is first diagnosed, there is a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future. There is a loss of routine and predictability. There is pain, insomnia, etc. - the list goes on.

Mindfulness can help us learn to accept the situation and then let go of the resistance we are experiencing. It shows us how resisting the painful physical, mental or emotional stimulus actually produces more suffering.

We think suffering arises from the pain itself, but Suffering = Resistance x Pain.

During cancer treatment, many feel like their bodies have turned against them. Through mindfulness practice, they learn a new way to be in relationship with their bodies (and minds). This leads to a fundamental shift in how they perceive their present moment experience.

This shift allows you to live more fully, which allows for a natural sense of gratitude to arise.

Gratitude is linked to physical and mental health and well-being.

Other people find the hardest time in their cancer journey is the transition from active treatment to survivorship. When it’s time to get back to one’s “normal” life, mindfulness can be of great use during these transition periods. It helps us:

  • Appraise our life
  • Clarify what is of most value
  • Teaches us how to move towards living a more authentic life filled with meaning and purpose

When we are living in a constant state of fear and anxiety, the antidote is so often found in learning to live in the present moment. Through attitudes of mindfulness we learn keys like letting go, non-attachment and acceptance.

We can’t change the reality of cancer. We can, however, change how we are in relationship to the cancer. We can learn to fight the cancer, and not let the cancer fight us.

These practices have transformed the lives of so many.There’s no lack of scientific evidence to back up the claims that those who practice experience reductions in pain, anxiety and depression. The mounting body of literature makes a compelling case for integrating mindfulness into the framework of mainstream cancer care.

Q. Would this go against my personal religious beliefs?

A. No. Mindfulness should be fully compatible with any and all belief systems. I think of mindfulness as the scientific study of all things related to the experience of being human, which in my book is non-denominational.

Some people associate mindfulness with Buddhism, as ancient Eastern teachings discussed many of the same concepts taught in mindfulness practice. However, I think even the Dalai Lama would agree the components of Mindfulness:  Intention + Attention + Awareness + Attitude, are just as much part of modern day Western neuroscience as they ever were ancient Eastern philosophy.

If anything, mindfulness practice may augment any religious beliefs a person might already hold by helping them to feel the connection between themselves and everyone/everything around them.

Q. I read that stress can make cancer grow faster... is that true? If so, can reducing stress through meditation stop cancer growth?

A. Research shows mindfulness has a number of physcologic advantages for those who practice. One of the most recent discoveries is the preserving effect it has on the end caps of our DNA (called telomeres) that protect DNA from damage. As we get older, these caps get shorter, and we see different disease processes manifest. This is true in certain diseases, like cancer, and for people under certain chronic stress, like caregivers.

One study that looked at telomere length compared a mindfulness-based intervention group to a non-intervention group and found that the group who had the mindfulness-based intervention had no change in their telomere length, while the telomeres in the non-intervention group had become shorter after the 3 month period of the study. This was the first study to demonstrate the preserving impact of a short-term mindfulness intervention on telomere length.

We know mindfulness practice down-regulates the activity of the sympathetic nervous system that causes our stress response, and up-regulates the vagal nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulate the relaxation response. This is tied to the immune system and inflammation—two things we think about a lot in cancer treatment.

We know inflammation is tied to gene expression. The interplay of our immune system and the inflammatory response on gene expression is a hot topic in science right now. The body of literature on this topic is growing exponentially and the results look very promising. The harmful effect stress has on the body, and all disease processes, is very evident. We know that mind-body therapies reduce markers of inflammation and improve immune system responses. However, the extent to which this can be used in the treatment of cancer is still being researched.

While this research is extremely interesting, there are other mechanisms that are being studied as it relates to stress and cancer, such as cortisol levels.

Punchline? There is no health risk associated with mindfulness practice. It is safe to practice, and if practiced, is very likely to help increase physical and mental well-being for whatever point in your cancer journey you find yourself.

Q. Where can I find mindfulness resources?

A. Depending on where you live, it may be easy or difficult to find mindfulness-based groups to attend. Larger cities on the east or west coast, such as San Diego, Los Angeles or Boston, offer plenty of opportunities to meet with others practicing mindfulness. However, for those without easy access to a group, or for those not ready to commit, there are SO MANY free online resources. Here are some of my favorites:

  • UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Institute -- a ton of mindfulness research comes out of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Institute (MARC). Every Thursday they offer a live meditation and post it free online. You can also access these through iTunes on any iPhone.
  • Kristen Neff's Self Compassion -- Kristen Neff is the leading researcher in the field of self compassion. You’d be surprised how many of our difficulties in life boil down to our internal self talk.
  • There are tons of apps for meditation and mindfulness. Two that I like are Insight timer and Mindbliss.
  • Jon Kabat Zinn, the father of the mindfulness movement, has a very simple book of short meditations that’s called Mindfulness for Beginners. This is a great book, regardless if you’re just starting out or have been practicing for years. I keep it on my desk at work and when I notice I have become a little stressed, I read a meditation and use it to anchor me to how I want to feel or my desired state.
  • Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery by Dr. Linda Carlson, is a step-by-step approach to help you cope with cancer treatment and reclaim your life. It addresses the complex relationship between stress and illness, the role it plays in cancer’s origins and how stress reduction can help improve outcomes for those going through cancer treatment. It’s a short book with simple practices that can be done alone or with a group.

More on Mindfulness!

Check out our podcast with Andrea to hear more about this topic, and register for our upcoming webinar on Oct. 17 where she will share stress reduction tips for both survivors and caregivers.

If you need mental health support, our toll-free Resource Line has certified counselors ready to talk. Call 1-877-427-2111 to speak with someone.

2 thoughts on “Cancer and Mindfulness

  1. Great article! I took a MBSR class long before my cancer diagnosis and I know that it helped me a lot while going through surgery, treatment and recovery. I highly recommend it – cancer patient or not.

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