Mindfulness can be a powerful tool to reduce stress and improve patients' outlook after being diagnosed with cancer.
by: Erin Murphy-Wilczek, LSW
During an initial cancer diagnosis, many patients will feel an array of different emotions. Some may experience a sense of shock, fear, or sadness. Many will ask themselves questions about why they have been diagnosed with cancer. As they go through treatment, more emotional and physical changes can occur, and as they do, many people become frustrated at the loss of control cancer has caused.
Patients can cope by utilizing past strategies that have gotten them through other crises they experienced throughout life. In addition, mindfulness techniques can create better outcomes by helping patients focus on the present moment and steering them away from the worry of the unknowns that cancer brings.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of mindfulness is “(a) The quality or state of being mindful and (b) The practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”1 Ancient Eastern religious traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism originated mindfulness-based meditations. The current approach to mindfulness in the Western health system is a way to achieve a state of mind that is aware and focused, which in turn can assist with reducing stress, improving physical health, and creating greater harmony in life.2
Many thoughts and feelings rush to the forefront of a patient’s mind about their diagnosis, treatment, and adverse events. As patients worry about the unknowns of cancer, mindfulness can help them focus on the here and now as well as bring hope into their everyday lives.
Some basic tips for practicing mindfulness include the following:3
Noticing ordinary moments: Hearing the phone ring, stopping at a traffic light or sipping water can allow a respite from worry by guiding your mind to be present and focus on what you hear, see, and taste.
Choosing one daily activity to practice mindfulness: Brushing your teeth, taking a shower or walking from point A to point B are opportunities to slow things down for thoughtful consideration instead of rushing through, keeping you in the moment of what is happening now.
Being compassionate with yourself: Noticing your thoughts when faced with limitations and being nonjudgmental and gentle to yourself can help label the negative feelings and permit you a few moments to process their value by being kind to yourself rather than judgmental.
Studies suggest that mindfulness affects various aspects of our psychological well-being, such as improving mood, decreasing anxiety, increasing positive emotions, and emotional reactivity.4 When patients apply mindfulness tools, it allows them to work with physical pain in the body as well as provide a sense of peace. A few activities of mindfulness include listening to music, dancing, meditation, walking, gardening, practicing breathing, and yoga.5These activities can help patients become aware of their body, specifically its tensions and discomforts in a non-judgmental manner. Applying mindfulness to many exercises such as these can expand awareness of everything you are doing and provide a sense of peace.
It is completely normal to feel anxious after being diagnosed with cancer. As a patient responds to a threat to personal well-being and life, they may experience what is called a “flight, fight, or freeze” response. When this mechanism is triggered, they choose to engage the threat or flee from it, in this case mentally.6 Another common feeling associated with cancer is sadness. It is important to identify emotions that can occur at diagnosis during treatment and in remission.7 Mindfulness practice assists with restoring bodies, calming minds, and reigniting hope during stress-filled days.
In oncology settings, mindfulness is often presented through programs such as mindfulness-based stress reduction or mindfulness-based cancer recovery, collectively referred to as mindfulness-based interventions. Hospitals, cancer centers, gyms, community centers, and houses of worship are good places to practice these techniques. Practicing mindfulness can assist with uncertainty about the future, depression, fear of recurrence and anxiety as well as mitigate physical symptoms such as fatigue, pain, and sleep disturbance.8
The act of gratitude is a component of mindfulness that is linked to creating a positive sense of self, by non-judgmentally changing the focus from moments that did not go as planned to events, things or feelings that went right. The act of gratitude can include giving thanks for a good cup of coffee, heat in your home, or a laugh with an old friend. Gratitude is the most powerful act in creating happiness. The act of being grateful can create a feeling in patients of balance and peace.9
Cancer is a traumatic event that changes a person’s life. Utilizing mindfulness tools can provide peace and hope. Practicing mindfulness on a daily basis can assist with long term effects of happiness and positivity. Even occasional mindfulness practice can help provide a break from the stress of cancer and fill patients with a sense of calm to confront the challenges they face.
1.“Mindfulness.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mindfulness?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld.
2. Mehta, R., Sharma, K., Potters, L., Wernicke, A. G., & Parashar, B. (2019). Evidence for the Role of Mindfulness in Cancer: Benefits and Techniques. Cureus. doi:10.7759/cureus.4629
3. Lindberg, S. (2017, July 20). Can meditation improve the lives of cancer patients? Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/04/16/meditation-and-cancer-patients/
4. Suttie, J. (n.d.). Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation Is Good for Your Health. Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_ways_mindfulness_meditation_is_good_for_your_health
5.Scott, E. (2019, July 17). How to Make Mindfulness Your Way of Life. Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/mindfulness-exercises-for-everyday-life-3145187
6. Anxiety: Cancer Diagnosis. (n.d.). Retrieved January 27, 2020, from https://www.cancercare.org/publications/367-anxiety_and_cancer
7. Coping with Sadness: Cancer Treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved January 27, 2020, from https://www.cancercare.org/publications/279-coping_with_sadness_throughout_and_after_treatment
8. “Mindfulness in Cancer Care: Hype or Help?” Mindfulness in Cancer Care - The ASCO Post, www.ascopost.com/issues/july-10-2018/mindfulness-in-cancer-care/.
9. Mindfulness and Gratitude . (n.d.). Retrieved January 27, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindfulness-insights/201906/mindfulness-and-gratitude