The word "cancer" alone can trigger a stress response, and for those undergoing cancer treatment, the experience can easily be the most stressful they ever endure. After all, research has shown that roughly half of people with advanced or terminal cancer struggle with mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and adjustment disorders.
Recently, mindfulness -- an increasingly popular (and scientifically backed) antidote to stress and depression that involves cultivating a focused awareness on the present moment -- has been gaining traction as a treatment for the mental health woes that commonly affect cancer patients. According to Australian Cancer Council psychologist Joanne Bell, there are almost always elements of distress in those affected by cancer, and mindfulness-based therapies can be effective in minimizing worry and emotional distress in patients undergoing treatments.
Next month, the Australian Cancer Council is beginning an eight-week Living Mindfully program, based on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), to help cancer patients manage stress while undergoing treatment, reported ABC Capricornia in Australia. The program meets for two hours per week, and has a strong emphasis on meditation.
"For many people who have been diagnosed with cancer -- or have been diagnosed with advanced cancer and are facing end-of-life issues -- their mind is so full of worries about the future... that they can't fully be aware and enjoy the time they have now," Bell tells ABC Capricornia.
Emotional distress, in turn, can have a significant impact on the course of the illness. Depression has been shown to hasten decline in cancer patients, and also to increase the risk of death. By reducing stress and negative emotions, mindfulness programs could potentially play an important role in the treatment process.
"[Cancer] is very demanding on the body and the mind, so the aim of this program is to help people learn ways to focus and calm their mind, and live more fully in the present moment so they can better manage difficult thoughts and difficult feelings," Bell says in an interview with ABC Capricornia.
A good deal of research has examined the impacts of both mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on cancer treatment. A 2012 Danish review of studies found that mindfulness-based therapies -- which include yoga, meditation, breathing exercises and mental training -- are an effective way to manage depression and anxiety in cancer patients.
"[The] summary of the study findings shows that mindfulness has a documented effect as an effective and inexpensive therapy method for cancer patients with anxiety and depression symptoms," an Aarhus University press release on the research stated. "The positive effect was not only seen immediately after therapy, but was maintained for at least six months following the therapy."
A 2011 study published in the journal Cancer Nursing also found that the majority of cancer patients who participated in mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy experienced positive effects including increased calm and well-being, better sleep quality, more energy and decreased physical pain.
With the research to back up the effectiveness of mindfulness in helping cancer patients, it's likely that these types of programs will continue to spread through hospitals, universities and treatment centers in the U.S. and abroad. According to Bell, the Australian programs have been been highly successful so far.
"The last two programs last year were fully booked before they even started, and all of our patients have stated that it's been a positive experience," Bell says in the ABC Capricornia interview. "It's a really rewarding experience to watch the personal journey that the participants take throughout the program."
This story appears in Issue 47 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, May 3.