Can mindfulness help me cope with cancer?

Mindfulness expert for Bupa UK
22 February 2017

If you’re living with cancer, it’s natural to feel anxious or stressed. In one study, almost half of people with cancer said that the emotional effects were worse than the physical ones. And the stress can last for years after treatment ends. With so many people now surviving cancer, there’s a real need for a way to help people cope with this stress.

You’ve almost certainly heard about mindfulness, but did you know it can be used to help reduce stress if you have cancer?

An image of a man drinking a cup of coffee

Mindfulness is best described as regularly practising being aware of the present moment, and doing so in a non-judgemental fashion. It’s brought about by purposefully paying attention to the present instead of the past or future, and trying to keep an open and accepting attitude.

The mindfulness method that’s been most widely studied for helping people with cancer is called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). MBSR was developed around 40 years ago in America by an expert called Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was first used in people with chronic pain and anxiety.

What is MBSR?

MBSR is a structured eight-week course in mindfulness meditation with gentle yoga. A typical MBSR course includes a series of weekly group classes that combine meditation and yoga, together with a daylong retreat.

The course includes training in:

  • sitting meditation – awareness of your breath, focussing on the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe
  • body scanning – paying attention to each part of your body in turn and being aware of any sensations within your body
  • insight meditation – being aware of your passing thoughts in a non-judgemental way
  • mindful movement – practising physical postures that help with strength, balance, flexibility and awareness of your body. These are based on yoga techniques.
  • the transition of mindfulness into your everyday life. Practising awareness when doing everyday tasks like eating, walking, driving and so on.

Does MBSR work?

A lot of studies have looked at MBSR to see how well it works. Overall it looks promising – in people with cancer, MBSR can help reduce stress, depression and anxiety. It may also improve your mood, sleep and quality of life. And these effects may continue long after the course has finished.

Although meditation can bring benefits, there’s no evidence to suggest that it can treat cancer itself. If you decide to do MBSR, this should be alongside any medical cancer treatment that your doctor recommends.

How can I get MBSR?

You may be able to get free MBSR courses from your hospital or cancer clinic. Ask your nurse of doctor if this is an option for you. Or there may be a charity near you that offers meditation to people with cancer for free or at a reduced charge. If you’re struggling to find an MBSR course, an alternative to MBSR is MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy). The methods and principles taught in MBCT and MBSR are very similar and MBCT is taught as a structured eight-week course too. MBCT has also been shown to reduce stress in cancer patients.

If you look up MBSR or MBCT privately make sure that you’ll be led by a qualified instructor. Meditation instructors can vary in terms of experience and qualifications, so you may want to ask them some questions. Find out if they’ve had formal training in MBSR or MBCT and whether they’ve worked with cancer patients before. Your nurse or doctor may be able to recommend someone with suitable training.

To help you find the right meditation teacher you may find it helpful to visit Cancer Research UK’s pages on meditation and complementary therapy organisations.

Dr Meera Joshi
Mindfulness expert for Bupa UK

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