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Meditation for Cancer Patients

What if a simple daily practice of clearing your mind and breathing slowly could help you feel better, sleep better, reduce pain and anxiety and reduce your risk of cancer recurrence?

Meditation is easy, convenient, inexpensive, safe and can be done in a variety of ways, based on individual preferences, and has the added benefit of being risk free. Cancer patients have reported benefits including greater tolerance of side effects from chemo or radiation therapy during their meditative practices as well as reports that patients feel like their treatments worked better when they were meditating.

Listen in as Maria Kahn, Applied Mindfulness Specialist, shares how meditation can be beneficial for cancer patients.
Meditation for Cancer Patients
Featured Speaker:
Maria Kahn
Maria Kahn is a Applied Mindfulness Specialist.

Learn more about Maria Kahn

Bill Klaproth (Host): Having cancer not only takes its toll on your body but the worry and stress associated with it can have a devastating impact on your mental state as well. So, many are turning to meditation to cope with the emotional strain of the disease and are finding meditation also helps with the physical challenges of cancer as well. Here to tell us more is Maria Kahn, who is an Applied Mindfulness Specialist. Maria, thank you so much for your time today. So, let's jump in. How can meditation help cancer patients?

Maria Kahn (Guest): Well, yes, as you mentioned, most people that find out that they have a diagnosis of cancer become overwhelmed by emotional stress, some kind of mental stress, as well as the physical stress associated with the treatment program. Meditation actually activates the body's natural relaxation response. When you do meditation, the mind and body are then trained to be in the same place at the same moment, and that has been proven, actually, to activate this response. So, when we stress, we turn up our fight-or-flight response. Stress hormones are released into the body, our heart rate increases, breath rate increases, muscles become tense, ready for action, blood sugar level rises, and also digestion and reproduction stop and growth and healing stop. So, these are some of the things that kind of really have a negative effect on the body, in terms of how they receive the treatment. Therefore, practicing meditation activates that relaxation response. When the relaxation response is activated, anything that is being turned up due to stress, whether it's physical stress, emotional stress, psychological stress, it's actually turned down in the body. So, the mind and body actually come into balance. The breath rate begins to regulate, the heart rate regulates, muscle tension regulates, and because the mind and body are trained to work together, when somebody is stressing mentally about an illness, whatever the mind perceives, whether it's real or imagined, the body reacts to. So, using a method such as meditation can help bring that activation of the fight-or-flight down and make the patient more relaxed for their treatment program.

Bill: That's amazing. So, stress as you just articulated, affects everything and meditation activates the natural relaxation response and it deals with the physical stress, emotional stress, and I think you said psychological stress. So, it really does affect the whole body. It's not just for your mind, it really has proven physical benefits, as well.

Maria: Absolutely. Actually, Dr. Herbert Benson discovered the relaxation response probably about 30-40 years ago, in the same room that 20-30 years before that, they discovered the stress response. He discovered this by hooking up people to this stress response measurement--heart rate, breath rate, muscle tension, even blood hormone levels--and he had them meditate. What he found out, first of all, he tested people that meditated for 20 years, and what he noticed was, anything that was turned up in the body due to the stress response was being turned down once they meditated. Seeing that these are people that had meditated for 20 years, he wanted to repeat the experiment with people that had never meditated. After practicing for one time, he took them through a guided meditation for about 15 minutes, after meditating for the first time, they received the same, exact benefits of people that have meditated for 20 years. So, it's proven that there's a response in the body. It only makes sense that we would have a response that was opposite the stress response. So, if we only were able to turn up our stress response system, most of us wouldn't live very long, because that overactivation would cause this overload of our systems in the body and it would attack their heart or other systems of the body. So, we have this innate capacity within us to actually counteract the stress response. If you think about it and how we're designed, it’s actually life-saving that we have this other response opposite of the stress response. Otherwise, we wouldn't last very long, but the toll that's activated the stress response would have on our body would actually make us sick. That being said, the chronic over-activation and inappropriate activation of our stress response that we're seeing in our society today is why a lot of people are ending up in doctor's offices. Actually, they're ending up in doctor's offices waiting rooms with things that can actually be helped and reduced and actually cured by something such as meditation.

Bill: The benefits happen immediately, you say. So, turn down your stress with meditation. You don't have to build up to it. The effects are right then and there which is amazing. And, Maria, can it be incorporated as a complement to a treatment path, as well? Meditation?

Maria: Well, absolutely and I would go as far as saying that at some point in time we're going to see this as preventative medicine. Keeping the mind and body in balance, recognizing when you are turning up your fight-or-flight response actually through a meditation such as mindfulness meditation, which makes you be aware of what you are doing as you are doing it and noticing when you are starting to get stressed and being able to turn that down. As part of a cancer treatment program, what I recommend new patients that I see, is that they meditate pre- and post-treatment, especially, in particular, with chemotherapy. So, if we go into a treatment and we're stressed and our heart rate is elevated or breath rates are elevated; we're emotional and we're feeling extremely stressed, and our mind and body is out of balance, that body is not going to receive the treatment as effectively as it would if we can bring the body into some kind of balance. So, I recommend that patients listen to a 10-minute guided meditation before, possibly during, if they're open to that, their chemotherapy treatment, and then after. And, being able to keep stress manageable and under control while they're going through the treatment program, they have seen a lot of reduction in side effects, a lot of reduction in the pain, better dealing with depression, better dealing with anxiety, experiencing more positive emotions, decreased anxiety, decreased depression, and a decrease in stress which will lead to, hopefully, allowing them to manage themselves better through the treatment.

Bill: So, many benefits, that's for sure. Maria, how do you meditate?

Maria: There are a lot of different ways to meditate. A lot of people think that we have to be sitting in a Lotus position, you know, and on a pillow, and chanting, but that's not the case. There are two forms of meditation that are actually beneficial to practice. One is the formal meditation where somebody would actually formally take their seat and begin to just notice the breath coming in and out of the body, focus their attention on their breathing, and then become aware of whenever their mind may wander to something that happened in the past or something happened in the future, and whenever they notice that it would just gently, gracefully acknowledge it and bring themselves back to their breath, allowing themselves to just rest in awareness of that breath. That's a formal practice. An informal practice of meditation which is helpful for people throughout their day which is just to practice noticing when their mind is wandering away from a task that they are doing. So, if they are just doing, say something as simple as washing dishes, they may have noticed that their mind is wandering to "What's going to be coming next in my treatment program?" or "Am I going to be able to deal with this financially?" or maybe be stressing off to something that they can't control. And the practice of mindfulness meditation helps them to notice when their mind wanders and bring it back to then engage in what they are doing again. That practice of self informally also activates that relaxation response. So, mindfulness is something that can help us no matter where we are and no matter what we're doing and no matter what we're facing in our lives.

Bill: Right. So, there are formal and informal ways that you just articulated of practicing meditation. So, can you share any other tips for first-timers? People that just want to start meditating?

Maria: Yes. If somebody wants to engage in formal practice, they would just start with--I would recommend a guided meditation. Our minds are so busy and so distracted these days that we actually need to have some kind of guided meditation and there's a lot of apps that are available now to assist with that. But one of the things that I find that my students are confused about with the sort of the diluted forms of mindfulness out there now, because there's so much talk about meditation mindfulness, is that the wandering mind is actually part of our practice; that it's not wrong or bad, you're not failing at all in your practice if your mind wanders. It's actually part of it. So, to relate to that wandering mind with a gentleness and grace because when you do start meditating, what you recognize is that it's really hard to be present with some things. It's really hard to focus our attention on something. There's so many distractions in the world and so many inner distractions that arise for us internally. So, bringing a sense of gentleness and grace to yourself, keeping the practice simple, starting out with maybe 10 or 15 minutes to begin with; just setting daily goals for yourself so you're not saying "I'm going to meditate every day for the next 30 days," and, you know, sometimes if that doesn't happen it can be a little discouraging. But, most importantly, recognizing that we give the same awareness to our breath as we do to the wandering mind, just not for as long, so when somebody recognized that their mind's distracted they may bring it back to the breath, and maybe distracted again, they may bring it back again, maybe a third, fourth, fifth, hundredth time, they may get a little frustrated and think that they're not doing it right. Just acknowledging it and bringing it back and just to recognize the practice of that is what brings the benefit to people. So, yes, you get the results and the measured result of meditation the first time you do it, but you get long-term benefits from continued practice.

Bill: So, recognize the thoughts and just continually bring it back. Recognize the thought, bring it back. So, those are great tips. Maria, thank you so much for talking to us today about meditation for cancer patients. For more information, visit That's You're listening to Cancer Talk with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. I'm Bill Klaproth. Thanks for listening.