Finding Calm: Using Meditation to Manage Cancer-Related Difficulties
Katie Masterson, 39, of Chicago, had just finished surgery and chemotherapy for early-stage breast cancer when she began worrying about the cancer coming back. She was having trouble taking a deep breath, especially while sitting, and thought she had cancer in her lungs. A chest x-ray showed no sign of cancer. Her doctor recommended medicine for anxiety.
A few months later, she learned that a friend-of-a-friend had a breast cancer recurrence in her lungs. “I freaked out,” says Katie, who was diagnosed in 2016.
Then she decided to take action against her worries.
“I knew I could not live like this, in constant fear and thinking every little ache and pain was the cancer spreading through my body,” she says. Since getting her diagnosis, Katie had been reading about how to live a healthy lifestyle. Most recommendations suggested meditating, among other activities, so she decided to sign up for a meditation class.
That was a turning point. The meditation techniques Katie learned reduced her fear of the cancer returning as she visualized a good future.
Meditation is a mind-body approach to creating well-being that has been used for thousands of years. Meditation has evolved into a complementary support therapy, in combination with medical and surgical treatment, for people with many conditions, including breast cancer.
“It’s an easy, non-invasive, nontoxic, low-risk intervention” for handling the impact of diagnosis and treatment, says Pallav K. Mehta, MD, director of integrative oncology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper in Camden, New Jersey, and a member of Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s board of directors.
While elements vary, meditation may include any of these: quiet sitting or lying down, regulated breathing, focus on visual or mental images, movement, and mantras or affirmations. Using such techniques helps you focus on your breath, pay attention, develop nonjudgmental awareness, and accept your body and thoughts. Meditation can involve spirituality, but it doesn’t have to.
Like Katie, many people use meditation to manage fears and negative thoughts. When you meditate, “you’re not blocking out your thoughts. You’re embracing them and understanding that they’re just a part of you,” Dr. Mehta says. “But they don’t control you. You control them.”
Finding the Right Practice for You
There are several meditation types. Mindfulness meditation can include sitting but also extends to everyday activities. It focuses on being mindful: keeping your attention on what you’re doing in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation sometimes centers on a specific practice, such as patterns of breathing, “scanning” the body to appreciate each part and how it feels, developing an attitude of loving kindness toward yourself and others, or noticing, labeling and releasing thoughts.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) combines a variety of techniques, including body scan, which involves awareness of how each part of your body feels, sitting meditation, and gentle and mindful yoga. Because MBSR has been widely researched and found beneficial for those diagnosed with breast cancer, some cancer centers and hospitals offer classes based on the program’s methods.
A psychologist used mindfulness meditation to help Monica Hillman, 52, of Yorba Linda, California, with distress related to her metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. He talked about how the brain responds to emotions and guided Monica through brief meditations.
“After just a few minutes [of meditation], I felt I was working from a calmer place,” she says.
That was 3 years ago. Monica now attends a weekly mindfulness meditation class at a yoga studio. She practices at home and uses meditation when she feels anxious about getting tests or going to doctors’ appointments.
If you think you’d have trouble sitting still and letting your thoughts go, welcome to the club.
“Sitting, breathing and clearing your mind is incredibly difficult for any human being because your brain is there to think,” says J. Kathryn de Planque, PhD, a meditation group facilitator at the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology in Los Angeles.
Instead of worrying about “failing” at meditation, you could try walking meditation, meditative movement — such as yoga, tai chi and qigong — or meditation with guided imagery. In her groups, Dr. de Planque plays music and guides participants with imagery, often using colors and nature scenes that provide a place of comfort, peace and renewal. Other images are used for specific healing or immune system support, she says, all with the goal of optimizing health and well-being.
“Even just 5 to 10 minutes of relaxation, calming and focusing on something positive is going to help,” she says.
Christine Egan, 49, from Bayport, New York, meditated on and off in the years before being diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2010. She used meditative breathing techniques during her doctors’ visits.
“It kept me from spiraling out with my thoughts,” she says.
During surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Christine meditated with guided imagery and visualizations.
“I wanted to bring every imaginable healing force that I could” to work against the cancer, she says. She now meditates outdoors every morning, regardless of season, listening to guided sessions on her phone. She walks for part of the meditation and sits for the rest.
Experts say meditation is safe for people with early-stage or metastatic breast cancer. By centering on the present moment and not the future or past, meditation can be especially helpful for those with metastatic disease, Dr. de Planque says. It enables people to set aside thoughts of cancer and “focus on the goodness in their lives, the beauty of nature, and the feeling of loved ones around them.”
While many people affected by breast cancer use meditation, science-based research about its benefits is limited. But in 2017, the Society of Integrative Oncology published updated guidelines on using complementary therapies, like meditation, with conventional care. The group found enough research-based evidence to suggest meditation as a complementary therapy for certain quality-of-life-related problems linked to breast cancer, including anxiety, stress, depression and mood disorders.
Research on mindfulness-based stress reduction found benefits as well. In a study of women who had completed treatment for early-stage breast cancer, those with the highest stress levels before starting the program had the greatest improvement. The program also was shown to improve sleep, reduce fear of cancer returning, lessen fatigue and help with chemobrain.
How meditation achieves these good effects is not yet known, but early studies show it may cause changes in the brain’s structure and function and reduce inflammation in the immune system. To maintain benefits, research showed, meditation practice should be regular and ongoing.
Meditation can feel intimidating, especially when you first begin.
“I tried it a few times before cancer and couldn’t sit there,” says Christine Hodgdon, 37, of Hagerstown, Maryland. “I thought, ‘This really isn’t for me.’”
In April 2015, Christine was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and early-stage thyroid cancer at the same time. She attended a 6-week class based on mindfulness-based stress reduction at her cancer center. Each session began with participants saying one word to describe what they were feeling, followed by a brief guided meditation. Then participants shared another one-word feeling. The second word was usually more positive than the first, Christine says.
As the class progressed, the meditation time increased.
“In the beginning, 2 minutes felt like a lifetime,” she says. “At the end, I was doing 10 or 15 minutes and thinking that wasn’t enough.”
The class helped her manage stress and fear. She now does 5-minute daily meditations at home.
Meditation can be free if you practice on your own or take part in no-cost sessions, such as those Dr. de Planque conducts at the Simms/Mann UCLA Center. Some classes are low-cost. Monica pays $15 for each meditation class she takes. Sessions with private therapists can be much more expensive and usually are not covered by insurance.
Free meditation resources include phone apps, YouTube videos, and audiobooks, e-books and videos borrowed from your library. Some phone apps have a fee. Ask your oncologist’s office or cancer center social worker for information on meditation classes in your area.