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Mindful : April 2018
A t the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, Canada, doctors use the full arsenal of conventional weapons to fight cancer, from chemotherapy to the latest cellular and genetic therapies. They also use mindfulness practice. After diagnosis, patients and their caregivers are offered an 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. “ When people are diagnosed with cancer, they struggle with anxiety, uncer- tainty, loss of control, and the real possibility of dying,” says Linda E. Carlson, PhD, a professor of psychology and oncology at the University of Calgary, who star ted the mindfulness program. “It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to regret the past and fear the future. And in addi- tion to all that psychological distress, patients are dealing with the symptoms of cancer, such as pain and fatigue, and the side effects of treatment, which can be very tough to get through.” Mindfulness helps cancer patients in many ways, Carlson says. In a study of women with breast cancer, she and her colleagues showed that mind- fulness-based interventions can reduce stress and mood disturbances. Other research- ers have repor ted that mindful- ness can ease fatigue, improve sleep quality, and enhance quality of life in patients strug- gling with cancer. Most of Carlson’s patients are skeptical of meditation at first. But once they begin to experience the benefits for themselves, she says, they become true believers. “Mindfulness encourages people not to dwell on the past or worry about what will happen. They learn to be in the moment, to accept what’s happened, and to be open to what they’re feeling.” Helping Cancer Patients Cope Practicing mindfulness often becomes par ticularly helpful after treatment ends, when patients face such existential questions as, What do I want to do with the rest of my life? What matters most to me? “It’s a difficult transition for many people,” Carlson says. “And many of the people we work with tell us that mindfulness really helps them.” The benefits may go beyond easing the distress of a cancer diagnosis. Dozens of studies have found that mindfulness-based inter ven- tions have small but signifi- cant effects on the immune system and stress-related hormones—effects that could give patients an edge in fighting cancer. For example, Carlson and her colleagues found that mindfulness interventions appear to protect cells from premature aging. Researchers have long known that small structures at the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, get shor ter as we age. Chronic stress reduces levels of telomer- ase, an enzyme that protects telomeres, and speeds loss of telomeres. In research with breast cancer patients, Carlson found that mindful- ness meditation boosted the activity of telomerase and protected telomeres. Given that shorter telomere length and telomerase activity have been shown to predict cancer mor tality, the evidence offers an intriguing hint that mind- fulness practice may help fight the disease itself. “Mind and body are one, so it’s reasonable to think that the psychological benefits of mindfulness could have an impact on the course of the disease,” Carlson says. “Even if mindfulness doesn’t have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the disease, it has a huge impact on the quality of patients’ lives.” Researchers have reported that mindfulness can ease fatigue, improve sleep quality, and enhance quality of life in patients struggling with cancer. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Peter Jaret is a frequent contributor to National Geographic, The New York Times, Health, and dozens of other periodicals. He is coauthor of Impact: From The Frontlines of Global Health, and is a recipient of the AMA Award for journalism. 52 mindful April 2018 health care