Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Having lost my mother and mother-in-law to breast cancer, and my father and father-in-law to other forms of cancer, I have more than an academic interest in the subject of cancer and its treatment. 

The number of cancer patients seeking complementary therapies to deal with their disease has increased steadily in recent decades. Complementary therapies can be helpful to cancer patients because they address some of the pervasive psychosocial difficulties associated with this disease. One mind-body technique is meditation. Another is yoga. There are many others including the use of affirmations and creative visualisation.

The good news the subject of this post is that weekly courses in meditation, mindful yoga and communication can improve the quality of life for cancer patients even years after their diagnosis, according to new data.

The information was presented this week at the 12th annual meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons in Washington DC.

"It's important for doctors to know that their patients may still experience psychological distress and they need to ask about it and have resources available," Dr Ruth Lerman (pictured below), a specialist in breast disease and internal medicine, who led the research at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, told Reuters Health.

"I think that the health value of meditation is remarkable. And it's becoming accepted now in Western medicine," she added.

“Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to what’s happening
in the present moment without judgment,” Dr Lerman says.

Dr Lerman's team randomized 68 female cancer patients (a treatment group of 48 and control group of 20) in September 2010. The treatment group attended weekly two-hour classes for 8 weeks. They learned meditation and communication skills, and practised meditation at home an average of 30 minutes per day.

All patients then rated their quality of life on a questionnaire and stress and symptom lists. The treatment group improved in all respects. Relevantly, participants showed a significant improvement in post-cancer symptoms and quality of life. According to Dr Lerman, herself a two-time breast cancer survivor, the effect sizes were moderate. There were no significant improvements in the control group.

The 8-week wellness program is called “Silver Linings”. The program is designed for women who have survived any type of cancer and includes meditation, yoga, breast awareness/self-exam, mindful listening and expressive writing. The program aims to help cancer survivors explore and heal the physical, emotional and spiritual effects of the disease. Explains Dr Lerman, “Facing life after cancer is challenging. Our unique, eight-week program teaches participants the tools of empowerment.”

"Mindfulness," says Dr Lehman, "is paying attention, on purpose, to what's happening in the present moment without judgment."

Dr Lerman, who also has an interest in alternative forms of healing including various forms of spiritual healing from her Jewish faith tradition, has been requested to submit the study for publication in the Annals of Surgical Oncology.

For more information on the study, click here.

Numerous studies have been done on how mindfulness affects cancer patients. One of the foremost experts, Dr Linda E Carlson, co-author of Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A Step-by-Step MBSR Approach to Help You Cope with Treatment and Reclaim Your Life found patients with mixed cancer diagnoses who participated in mindfulness training had lower mood disturbance and stress symptoms after mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and those improvements were maintained at a 6 month follow-up.

Another study by Carlson and colleagues found patients with early-stage breast and prostate cancer experienced improvements in quality of life, symptoms of stress, and sleep quality.

This blog sets out a simple form of mindfulness sitting meditation.

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