Healing One Moment At a Time

For people with cancer, mindfulness is one promising approach that can help treat the mind – and the body.

For the 528 Canadians diagnosed with cancer every day, the journey back to health will be about more than fighting the physical symptoms of the disease. Mindfulness is one promising approach that can help treat the mind—and the body.

Beyond physical treatments

Many with cancer also battle clinical levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. This can not only be debilitating to their quality of life, but it can also affect their recovery and chance of survival.

Given the complex connection between emotional well-being and cancer, a treatment plan that addresses physical and psychological symptoms has the best chance of success. Researchers are looking at the practice of mindfulness as a promising intervention to support patients throughout their therapy and in the years to follow.

How many are affected?

Anxiety and depression can occur at any time during a battle with cancer and affect almost one in four of those who are diagnosed. Fears and uncertainty around prognosis and recurrence, the disruption of daily life, and many other factors can all contribute to this emotional distress. Even five years after the initial diagnosis, many still experience a high level of emotional distress.

“Getting a diagnosis is incredibly stressful and difficult to deal with,” says David Denis, a naturopathic doctor specializing in cancer treatment and a faculty member at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies. “It’s quite complex. There are constantly new things to deal with and new decisions to make. At every moment, something changes and you’re faced with uncertainty.”

Over recent years, there has been a growing body of research showing similar findings—a diagnosis of cancer can cause significant levels of psychological stress. What’s more is that the likelihood of resulting mood disorders is relatively stable across all treatment stages.

The true cost of stress

Depression and anxiety disorders have considerable repercussions on treatment outcomes, prognosis, and survival rates. The deteriorating effect of psychological distress and its associated symptoms is in part caused by its impact on self-care, compliance with treatment, and immune response.

Research has found that patients with depressive symptoms are 25 percent more likely to die. Those with major or minor depressive disorders have an even poorer prognosis and are 39 percent more likely to die than those without depression.

A change in depressive symptoms is also associated with a better chance for survival. Researchers followed 101 women over 14 years to find out the effect of this change on long-term survival rates. At the end of the study, they found that women whose depression improves live more than twice as long as women whose symptoms worsen.

The power of the moment

Mindfulness is a practice steeped in Buddhist tradition. Although it has since made its way into secular realms, the premise behind it has remained the same.

It is the practice of building an awareness of the present moment and a nonjudgmental acceptance of the accompanying thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. The emphasis for practitioners is not on changing a given situation but on altering the way in which one relates to it.

For those suffering from the anxiety and depression that often occurs alongside cancer, mindfulness therapy may help reduce these symptoms and improve overall stress levels. A group of Canadian researchers have also linked mindfulness to the development of positive coping strategies and a decrease in worry, avoidance, and rumination.

“Mindfulness can give people a sense of agency—something they can do to take care of themselves,” says Denis. “In a moment when there’s not much they can do, they can bring attention to their experience in a different way.”

One recent study followed 229 breast cancer patients and found that their mood improved with an average of just 33 minutes of practice per day for two months. These researchers also found that the more the patients practised, the greater the benefit.

Not only are studies showing an immediate improvement of symptoms and well-being, but some research also suggests the benefits of treatment programs continue after completion.

Bring mindfulness into daily life

In 1979, meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn developed an eight-week program that is still used today. Combining meditation and yoga in group and individual settings, this program is one option of mindfulness therapy for cancer patients. However, even without a structured program, we can foster a sense of mindfulness in our lives and reap the rewards.

Whether you take five minutes or an hour, the trick is consistency. Set aside some time each day to build your practice. Start with just a few moments and slowly expand your practice over time.

Take a seat

One way to incorporate mindfulness into your life is through meditation. Sit or lie comfortably, close your eyes, and begin to focus on the sensation of your breathing.

Find peace in everyday moments

Whether you’re eating dinner, walking to work, or even washing dishes, your everyday routine is full of opportunities. Whatever you find yourself doing, focus your attention on the sensations you’re experiencing. Notice what you see, smell, feel, hear, and taste.

Mindfulness is just a click away

If you feel that a little guidance will help you in your practice, look no further than your phone. While many find that constant screen time can take them away from the moment, a number of free apps can turn your phone into a personal mindfulness mentor.

Whichever ways you choose to practise mindfulness, the key is to remain in the present moment. It’s natural for your thoughts to wander. Allow this to happen without judgment of yourself or of the thought or emotion that comes through. When you find your attention straying, simply return your focus once more on your breathing.


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