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How Meditation Can Support Cancer Treatment

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My two previous blogs in this series have focused on several different treatments that are used as adjuncts or complements to contemporary medical treatments for cancer (chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy). While some people advocate for these treatments as alternatives to such medical treatment for cancer, to this point I have found testimonial data to support that position, but no convincing research. In this blog we'll look at a very popular complementary treatment: meditation.

Meditation as a Complement to Cancer Treatment

Let's begin by acknowledging that millions of people have used meditation for general health and mental health benefits for centuries. When I was a graduate student in clinical psychology, my wife, who was then suffering from frequent head and neck aches, tried everything from massage (delivered by me in a less than expert manner) to medications to the original "earth shoes" in an effort to find relief, with little effect. Then one day she told me that she'd signed up for a class in Transcendental Meditation (TM). All I knew about TM was that it was something The Beatles were into, and I was skeptical. Nevertheless, my wife took the day-long class, returned home with her secret mantra, and proceeded to practice TM twice a day. Three weeks later she told me that she'd had only one brief headache, whereas she was used to having two or three serious ones a week. So there you go -- some testimonial data from your blogger!

The two primary modalities of meditation that are practiced here are:

Concentrative Meditation (CM)
This describes TM and similar meditation practices that teach individuals to focus on a single image, sound or mantra, or even on their own breathing.

Mindful Meditation (MM)
In mindful meditation, individuals are taught not to focus their attention in a singular way, but rather to be aware of any and all thoughts, feelings, sounds and images that may pass through their mind. And that is the key to MM: Letting them pass through your mind, as opposed to trying to hold on to any one of them.

Is Meditation Effective?
There is good news when it comes to meditation as a complementary treatment, and that is that a number of rigorous clinical trials are underway. Using controlled clinical trials, these investigators are studying the effects of both types of meditation on health issues such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and the side effects of cancer treatment. The common denominator driving this research is a general recognition that chronic stress is linked to a variety of health problems, such as increased heart disease, compromised immune system functioning and premature cellular and cognitive aging. It makes sense, then, to take a closer look at how meditation can help. Here is a sample of what researchers have discovered and verified so far:

· In a study of 60 breast cancer survivors, women who practiced meditation reduced the number and severity of hot flashes and also reported improvements in mood and sleep.
· A study of 63 people with rheumatoid arthritis found that mindfulness meditation helped to improve quality of life and reduce psychological distress.
· A study of 298 college students found that transcendental meditation helped students reduce stress and improve coping strategies.
· A "meta-analysis" of 10 studies found that mindfulness meditation improves the overall mental health of cancer patients.

The above should be encouraging to those who are facing cancer and contemplating a comprehensive treatment plan. As with the other complementary treatments looked at in this series, there is no evidence as yet that meditation arrests or cures cancer. That said, comprehensive treatment should include mental health as well as reductions in the pernicious side effects of cancer treatment.

Looking Beyond What Works
Clinical research (including research in psychology) often seeks to ask a simple question: Does a treatment work? That is an important question. But an equally important question is: What works for whom, and when? Consider the following email message I received from a woman who has been working with her doctors to confront metastatic cancer ("mets"):

"This recent cancer treatment is very hard on me ... and I don't suspect the remaining chemos will be much different. I want to spend the years I have left on a healing spiritual quest ... for me.

I have bone mets and massage is not advised due to pressure on the bones that are already weakened. I have lymphedema in my arms and chest, leaving just my legs, feet, back, face and ears for acupuncture needles. In the earlier stages, I did get relief from acupuncture, but not so much now.

I am a big time meditator and do lots of energy work. Frankly I think that has had some impact on my being alive eight-plus years with mets. We all have to die of something. I am not afraid to die, but am afraid to die before I am able to fully accept myself with no judgments. That is what I am devoting my remaining time to."

For this woman, as for many women (and men) who are faced with cancer, the issue becomes not just "what works" but "what works and when." Clearly, what worked before does not necessarily work now for this woman -- but that does not mean that the various complementary treatments she tried were not worthwhile at the times she turned to them.

To join the conversation about how modern medicine has transformed death and dying, visit www.newgrief.com.

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