Exploring the Mind-Body Connection in Improving Patient Quality of Life

Debu Tripathy, M.D.

WE ALL KNOW DEEP inside that the mind and body are connected. Through scientific evidence and the human experience, we know that we can accomplish what our minds will us to do. But what about in disease — particularly, in patients with cancer? Can we really modify the trajectory of an illness by meditation, relaxation and intentional imagery? 

The simple answer is yes. We now have scientific proof from randomized trials that our state of mind, how we experience symptoms and our levels of depression and anxiety can all be helped through structured programs that include modalities such as meditation/mindfulness, relaxation, yoga and music therapy. Several articles in this issue of CURE highlight the important progress being made in these fields. 

In fact, as part of an effort to develop guidelines and recommendations for different types of integrative oncology approaches, a group of us from the Society of Integrative Oncology systematically reviewed recent randomized trials done in patients treated for breast cancer. We found that, using a formal grading system adapted from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, we could recommend some, but not all, of the integrative therapies that were tested for their effects on quality of life. What we cannot state at this time is that any of these activities can actually make patients live longer or bring about cancer remissions. We also were not able to find high-level evidence that botanical/herbal agents have anticancer or symptom benefits, but we acknowledged that there are many barriers to conducting these types of trials using standard methods, so maybe new research tools are needed. 

Of course, quality of life, happiness and feelings of well-being are critically important to patients and are clearly needed to complement improvements in longevity and cure rates that we hope to continue to see with modern medicine, and someday even with mind-body medicine. 

Another feature article in CURE, on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), initially recognized and studied in soldiers and civilians exposed to war, emphasizes the parallels seen in patients with cancer who are shocked, angered, dismayed and saddened by their cancer diagnoses and sojourns. Some of the same techniques used for war-time PTSD appear to work for cancer’s version, but the condition first needs to be recognized and diagnosed. 

Mind-body medicine for cancer is here to stay. We need to be aware of this connection to even begin the healing process. And we have to proceed forward with the same urgency and innovation as we do for every other aspect of cancer. 

Professor of Medicine 
Chair, Department of Breast Medical Oncology 
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center 
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