Meditation’s Surprising Effect on Cancer

The mind's profound effect on the body is especially crucial amid illness

Cancer leaves many wounds. And while we have a tendency to focus only on the physical effects that cancer causes, anyone who has battled cancer will tell you that the emotional scars can be just as jarring.

Beginning the first day you hear those words, “You have cancer,” the world as you knew it was suddenly turned upside down. In a matter of minutes, your mind races to comprehend the impact of the words you just heard. And for days afterward—and any number of long, sleepless nights—a thousand thoughts may come and go, along with a crushing cascade of emotions.

“Please, walk me down from the emotions of love and joy”—said no one ever. There are as many chemical reactions in the body tied to these positive, desirable emotions as there are to the negative, undesirable emotions of fear, anxiety, and stress. And either way you go, emotions are powerful influences that affect the state of our health.

Emotions Release Chemicals Throughout Your Body

The chemistry tied to emotions has been well-researched. Scientists like to try to boil human experiences down to chemical reactions. A case in point is an article published in the International Journal for Modern Trends in Science and Technology which describes emotions as “complex chemical reactions in the body’s nervous system characterized by neurophysiologic changes associated with thoughts and behavioral responses.” In the scientific view, emotions are made up of chemicals and are a direct result of the thoughts we think.

That latter part is important. Sometimes emotions give us insight into what’s going on inside of us that may have escaped our conscious attention. And that could give us an opportunity to do something about them.

No one would want to be emotionless, as they enrich our life experience. If we pay attention to our emotions, we can gain insight into how our body is translating the experiences we face. That translation can also leave a lasting impact on our health.

When there’s a prolonged imbalance of negative emotions, our body may become overwhelmed and respond in a negative, unhealthy manner. Put another way, a preponderance of negative emotions can result in a preponderance of chemical reactions that, over time, can damage the physical body.

One of the most obvious and easy-to-understand emotions–and its physical consequences–is the emotion of fear. Fear is a survival response. And fear is very physical. Fear begins when you perceive (in your mind) a threat. In order for your body to handle the perceived threat, myriad physiological responses happen within milliseconds:

  • The amygdala (your middle brain) springs into action, alerting your nervous system with an all-hands-on-deck emergency alert;
  • Cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones are immediately released into your body;
  • Your heart rate rises;
  • Your blood pressure goes up;
  • You breathe faster;
  • And believe it or not, your blood flow changes direction—it flows away from your heart and into your extremities just in case you need to run fast to outdistance an enemy.

In other words, your body is preparing itself for fight-or-flight. It’s doing what it was designed to do.

The emotion of fear is all too real for cancer patients and it can continue for long periods of time. Depression is another emotion that cancer patients often experience. According to The National Cancer Institute (NCI), 1 in 3 cancer patients experience mental or emotional distress with a reported 42 percent of breast cancer patients and 41 percent of head and neck cancer patients leading the way.

Also according to the NCI, 25 percent of cancer survivors experience symptoms of depression, 45 percent experience anxiety, and many also experience PTSD symptoms. Sadly, cancer survivors are twice as likely to die by suicide.

Turning the Tables on Negative Emotions

So, how do we deal with these emotions that are a very real reaction to the physical threat we face—the threat of cancer? In a fascinating study reported in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, mindfulness-based stress reduction was demonstrated to be a significant intervention for breast cancer survivors.

Mindfulness simply refers to a practice that uses meditative and attention-directed exercises to minimize stress and increase awareness of the present.

The goal of mindfulness is to purposefully disengage from beliefs, thoughts, or emotions and to focus instead on the present moment. If you can teach yourself to detach yourself from the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing, you can discover a power you never even knew you had.

In another study, Evidence for the Role of Mindfulness in Cancer: Benefits and Techniques published in the journal Cureus, researchers evaluated the effects of various mindfulness techniques on cancer patients. Their conclusions?

  • Cancer-related sleep disorders: Results indicated a notable decrease in insomnia and other sleep disturbances commonly experienced by cancer patients.
  • Radiation therapy: Participants who actively practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) experienced significant improvement as compared with those who did not practice the technique.
  • Mindfulness and Immune Response: T-cells of participants in the group that participated in MBSR were more readily activated. These T-cells are the heroes of the immune system, effective in fighting cancer cells and other unwanted intruders.

MBSR Techniques

  • Practice Sitting Meditation: Sit in a comfortable position and direct your full attention to the sensation of breathing.
  • Perform Your Own Internal Body Scan: Focus awareness on individual parts of your body.
  • Practice Being Non-judgmental: Pay full attention to whatever is occurring at the current moment, but don’t judge it.
  • Have Patience: Accept the fact that events unfold in their own time.
  • Develop a Beginner’s Mind: Try to see everything as if it were happening for the first time.
  • Trust Yourself: Learn to honor your feelings rather than suppress or distrust them.
  • Avoid Striving Too Hard: Practice having no goal other than meditation itself, accepting what thoughts come and go.
  • Learn to Let Go: Try not to hold onto—or reject—your experience.
  • Practice Kindness: Practice being kind and warm in the face of difficulties while avoiding being self-critical.
  • Develop Your Innate Curiosity: Investigate whatever appears in your experience, without automatic judgment.
  • Develop the Art of Acceptance: Practice being objective as you calmly examine all thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs that come and go in your mind’s process.

Changing the landscape of your mind often isn’t an easy process. Just as it takes time and effort to get the body into better shape, the same holds true for the mind. If you’re facing a difficult diagnosis, that effort is especially worthwhile.

Start by steering your mind toward positive thoughts. It can take a little practice because the natural tendency is to stray from the thought at hand. When you notice your mind doing this, stop, breathe, focus, and redirect your thoughts. Allow yourself to envision a healthier body, a body without cancer.

In order to stay as positive as possible, you may find, as I did, that I needed to disengage from certain people and find like-minded people who encouraged me and understood what I was going through.

If that is the case for you, too, realize that this may be an opportunity for you to give yourself permission to focus on what you need to fight the battle you’re fighting. And make no mistake—cancer is a battle. Why not try incorporating the art of mindfulness into your arsenal of cancer-fighting techniques?

Republished from

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James Templeton founded Uni Key Health Systems in 1992 and now the Templeton Wellness Foundation as a way of giving back and helping others achieve the health and wellness they are seeking.
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