Stressed During Cancer Treatment? Try Meditating

Mindfulness meditation can ease stress during treatment.

You might think that a psychotherapist would be better equipped than the average person to deal with the emotional turmoil brought on by a cancer diagnosis. But when Elana Rosenbaum received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1995, she faced her treatment not with the tools of education but with the fruits of meditation.

A senior instructor and mindfulness coach at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in Worcester, Mass., and a licensed clinical social worker, Rosenbaum knew that stress makes a bad situation worse, so she turned to a technique known as mindfulness meditation to reduce her stress and keep negative thoughts at bay.

“I felt it important to use what I had been teaching others, which is that there is more right with you than wrong and that your attitude does make a difference,” Rosenbaum says. “There is so much fear around what is happening, but if you stop struggling against what you cannot control, you’re more able to find that peace and strength inside of you that allows you to manage and cope with what you’re going through.”

Rosenbaum says mindfulnessbased stress reduction (MBSR) greatly reduced the stress and anxiety of her treatment, which included a stem cell transplantation that “nearly killed her.” It also helped her tolerate the side effects of treatment. “Mindfulness meditation allowed me to receive and not fight what was going on so I could benefit from treatment,” she explains. “I would lie in bed and look out at the sky, for example, and I would find it very comforting.”


Because cancer is one of the most stressful diseases a person can endure, it brings overwhelming anxiety around diagnosis, treatment and the possibility of recurrence, Rosenbaum says. Controlling stress is essential because evidence suggests that the body’s numerous chemical responses to chronic stress may affect cancer growth and perhaps even influence the ability to cope with treatment.

Patients can counter stress by paying attention to the present and drawing on their inner resources and natural capacity for greater well-being via mindfulness meditation. Recognized by many as an effective integrative therapy within the medical community, mindfulness meditation has shown consistent, reliable and clinically relevant reductions in physical and psychological symptoms across a range of medical diagnoses, including cancer.

[Explore additional ways to reduce treatment-related stress]


“Mindfulness meditation is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally,” explains Saki F. Santorelli, EdD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and executive director of the university’s Center for Mindfulness. “[Negative thoughts] are not to be denied, but they can crowd out what is before us at the moment, such as the beautiful sky or the feeling of being alive even though you’re compromised in some way. These judgments are often inaccurate and can prevent us from seeing things clearly.”

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