Biomedical research has provided undeniable evidence of the interconnectedness of the mind and body. And there is a widespread belief among psychologists, and many others, that cancer is caused, at least in part, by abnormal or unbalanced mental processes.
While there are many things that can evidently lower your risk of cancer, one of the most accessible, least invasive, and beneficial ways is meditation; and the best part is that it’s free!
Meditation is an ancient practice, with some of the earliest references dating back to the year 20 BCE. It is typically referred to as a spiritual practice, with evidence in almost every religion. Although it sometimes has different names and there are several ways to practice it, the goal of meditation is similar, to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally peaceful state. An immense focusing accomplishes this on one’s mind for a period of time.
Meditation can be used to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain while increasing peace, perception, self-concept, and well-being.
Overall, it is a wonderful practice for anyone, and there's a belief that meditation is an incredibly valuable tool that should be used as an adjunct to cancer treatments. When it comes down to how meditation can help cancer patients, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of studies published, and most of the studies are short-term, which is disagreeable seeing as mediation is something that takes time to build upon and perfect.
In a study published in 2011 of 60 breast cancer patients, women who practiced meditation had reduced instances and severity of hot flashes and also reported improvements in sleep and mood. The women who meditated had significantly lower scores on Total Mood Disturbances tests including subclasses of depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion. These women had fewer overall symptoms of stress, fewer cardiopulmonary and gastrointestinal symptoms, less emotional irritability and cognitive disorganization, and fewer habitual patterns of stress.
They also reported more energy and vigor than the control subjects. There was evidence of significantly improved psychological functioning and enhanced coping abilities, they reported having an elevated quality of life because mediation helped to relieve some of the debilitating side effects of their cancer treatments.
It is well known that chronic stress increases your risk of developing diseases including cancer. Cancer can lead to abnormalities in the neurological structure and function. Chemotherapy and cancer lead to a decrease in hormone levels and increased proinflammatory immune response. All of these changes lead to cognitive impairment, depression, anxiety, fatigue, weakness, nausea, pain, weakened immune system, and trouble sleeping.
Brain scans of people who had just meditated showed increased electrical activity in regions associated with positive emotions and long-term meditators actually have an increase in brain size in the regions associated with emotional regulation. This explains why people who meditate report increased mood and ability to deal with negative emotions.
There is a spike in melatonin levels immediately after meditation, melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and generally improves a person’s length and quality of sleep. Secretion patterns of cortisol, the stress hormone, of a person who meditates show a trend towards the healthier functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which is our central stress response area. Meditation has also been evaluated in pediatric cancer patients; in a trial of children with neuroblastoma undergoing antibody therapy, guided meditation was reported effective in alleviating acute pain.
Now we can see how meditation helps a person get better sleep and improves their general mood, let’s look at how it affects the immune system. One study published in 2008 sampled women with breast cancer. The women were divided into two groups, one control and the other group meditated every day for 8 weeks. The women who meditated had increased natural killer (NK) cell activity and cytokine levels and decreased cortisol levels. However, the women in the control group had diminished NK activity and increased IL6 and IL10 levels, which are associated with increased proinflammatory cytokines and inhibited immune response.
Telomeres are the protective tips on a DNA strand that help to protect the chromosomes from damage. Much like the plastic tips on shoelaces keep them from fraying. Over time with the continuous duplicating of DNA strands, telomeres become shorter, associated with old age, death, and disease. Telomeres are particularly susceptible to oxidative stress and psychological stress, such as the stress induced by cancer. Meditation can lengthen telomere strands. One study published by the American Cancer Society in 2014 observed that breast cancer survivors that meditated over a three-month period had longer telomeres than survivors that did not meditate.
In conclusion, meditation has numerous health benefits that would make it great therapy for anyone. For cancer patients, it’s a no-brainer. All it takes is practice. There is evidence of the positive effects on the brain. These changes in the brain lead to improved mood, enhanced immune system activity, better sleep, and an overall feeling of inner peace. With these changes in your life, you will feel healthier, have better-coping skills, and be less susceptible to disease, stress, and the side effects of cancer and its treatments.