Can mindfulness help you cope with cancer?


When my father was diagnosed with leukemia it was quite a shock.

Just a month before that diagnosis my father had competed in the Las Vegas 5K race as a race walker. In his 80s, he had been race walking for 3 years at that point, taking up the sport not long after I began running marathons. His time in Vegas was significantly slower than his normal 12:30 min pace but heck, we had just flown across the country, — and the race was at night local time. As “slow” as he was he still came in 20 minutes ahead of my girlfriend and her brother!

But a month later, just before Thanksgiving, came a call that he had passed out at a routine doctor visit. A blood test an hour later revealed his bone marrow was no longer working like it should. A biopsy the following week confirmed what the blood test suggested, but with the added kick of a particularly virulent strain of leukemia.

Many times I sat in the oncologist’s waiting room listening to the in-house channel expound on a variety of health tips. Then one day I heard a short segment on mindfulness. That piqued my interest. The video was extolling the virtues of being present with awareness and compassion. “Great,” I thought. But I wondered who was recommending mindfulness to the patients, and beyond that, who was teaching them how to meditate? And beyond that — did it even matter? Could teaching cancer patients how to meditate, and the foundational attitudes of mindfulness, really make a difference in their lives?

The answer is, yes.

In 2000 a study was published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine (Speca et al.) evaluating Mindfulness Based Cancer Recovery. This 8 week course was modeled after the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction curriculum developed by Jon Kabbat-Zinn. Results were impressive. People who engaged in the MBCR course had a 65% reduction in mood disturbance, including anxiety, depression and anger. The participants also reported feeling more vigorous and less confused. Furthermore stress symptoms related to side effects of treatment decreased by 35%.

And the benefits lasted. Further studies reinforced the benefits of teaching mindfulness to people with cancer.

How does mindfulness help? When someone experiences chronic illness or chronic pain, a tremendous amount of mental energy is devoted to worrying about what can’t be controlled. Chronic stress leads to the chronic release of stress hormones which has an adverse affect on the body and the mind. And that has an impact on the immune system.

A mindfulness approach, however, allows for a sense of curiosity and compassion to replace the anxiety, anger and depression. Seeing things as they are, without judgement, is empowering.

Some people equate mindfulness with looking through rose-colored glasses. But for many with cancer or chronic illness, their glasses are tinted with a perspective of perpetual gloom, not reality. If we harken back to the old days of TV, “Just the facts, ma’am”, we can examine the facts, without the commentary of suffering, and choose our own path, a path towards peace.

This is why I’m offering the Mindfulness Based Cancer Recovery course starting October 8. This 8 week curriculum is beneficial for patients, their family or close friends, as well as caregivers in the medical field. The input from a variety of people greatly enriches the group support. No experience is necessary to learn how to reduce stress. More information and registration can be found here. Discounts are available for anyone referring a friend, family member or co-worker to join them. Payment plans also available if required.

This is a special opportunity for healing. Share this blog with someone you love.

Oh, and that elderly race-walker — he’s doing great. Who knows, maybe he’ll be back on the track training for next year’s Flying Pig 5K!

Strengthen your mind, strengthen your world.