Being diagnosed with cancer can trigger strong emotions, particularly feelings of anxiety and fear, which can deeply affect all areas of your life. While the focus of cancer treatment is generally on the treatment of the physical aspects of the disease, it is very important not to ignore the effects on your mental and emotional health. Developing mindful practices as you go through your cancer journey can ease stress and provide positive mental and physical benefits.
How Does Stress Affect Cancer?
It is widely known that chronic stress can have many negative effects on the body, such as lack of quality sleep, increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, digestive problems, chronic headaches, and more. When stress levels are high while your body is battling cancer, these effects can be even more harmful.
While there is no evidence clearly showing that stress can cause cancer, many studies have shown a strong link between stress and the growth of cancer cells in patients who have already been diagnosed with cancer. Stress can cause hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine to go into overdrive, hindering normal processes of the immune system and promoting cancer progression. Studies have even shown that stress can reduce the efficacy of chemotherapy.
In addition to the many negative physical side effects of stress, it can also greatly reduce your quality of life. Unmanaged stress can take away your sense of peace and well-being and affect your work ethic and relationships.
How Mindfulness Can Help
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that involves focusing intently on the present moment without any judgment. A growing number of studies have shown that cancer patients who developed a mindfulness practice experienced great improvements in stress and anxiety levels, leading to an increased immune response and better overall mental health. In addition, mindfulness is linked to an improvement in cardiovascular issues, gastrointestinal symptoms, muscle tension, and emotional irritability, as well as better sleep.
One study found that women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer who practiced mindfulness for 15 to 45 minutes per day experienced less fatigue and had improvements in general anxiety and fears about cancer recurrence.
The mind-body connection to cancer treatment is still being explored, and mindfulness as a treatment practice has not yet been widely adopted by physicians at other practices. Nevertheless, the evidence is clear: Patients who spend time regularly on mindful practices have better physical, mental, and emotional health.
How to Practice Mindfulness
The key to getting the benefits of mindfulness is to develop a routine – and stick to it. Also, be patient with yourself. Mindfulness might take a little time to get used to, but the more you practice, the more comfortable you will become, and the sooner you will begin to notice the rewards.
When practicing mindfulness, the goal is to not focus on any particular thought. Instead, simply observe your thoughts as they pass through your mind, without judging the thoughts or dwelling on them. This allows you to be fully present in the moment.
Follow these tips to begin your mindfulness meditation practice:
- Set aside a time every day for meditation. Scheduling meditation makes it a priority and helps you avoid feeling like you don’t have time for it.
- Find a quiet spot without distractions. If you live in a busy household, consider asking your family members to provide you with some peaceful time. Ask them to refrain from noisy activities. You could also wake up before everyone else and claim that early morning moment for your daily meditation.
- Make sure you are in a comfortable position but not one that makes you sleepy. If you feel like you might fall asleep while sitting or lying down, try standing or even walking.
- Close your eyes (unless you are walking) and focus on your breath as you breathe in and out. When thoughts pop up, let them go gently without reacting to them.
- Let yourself feel any sensations that come over your body, including tension or pain.
- Go easy on yourself. If you get distracted, just allow yourself to return your focus to your breath. Let thoughts flow in and out of your mind with each breath.
- If you have trouble concentrating, try quietly repeating a word or phrase (mantra) to yourself while you meditate. This can help focus your mind, and depending on what you are saying to yourself, a mantra helps reassure yourself and boost your mood.
- Begin with small amounts of time, such as a few minutes once or twice a day. As meditating becomes easier for you, slowly work your way up to longer periods, such as 15 to 20 minutes.
If you would like additional help with meditating, many apps, podcasts, books, online videos, and websites are available. Choose one you like and make it a part of your routine. If you are interested in taking your meditation practice a step further, another option is looking into classes that combine physical movement with meditation, such as tai chi or yoga.
Cancer Care You Can Count on at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers
At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, our expert providers are committed to giving you compassionate, high-quality care while making your cancer treatment as stress-free as possible. We offer classes – one specifically about practicing mindfulness – and support groups for patients and their families to help you continue to focus on what matters most as you navigate through your cancer journey.
Additionally, our oncology social workers are here to support you and your family through your treatment. These valuable members of each patient’s multidisciplinary care team help patients and their family process the complicated emotions that come with cancer care. With cancer being a major source of stress, our social workers are dedicated to helping our patients find relief and feel supported, allowing you to better focus on your cancer treatment.
Find out how the support groups offered at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers can help you and your loved ones.