Healing Wherever You Go

CURE, Winter 2007, Volume 6, Issue 6

Mindfulness-based stress reduction may help cancer patients and survivors to overcome the stress and chaos that cancer initiates.

While the ability to change one’s surroundings may be limited, a sense of ease, using a number of technique, can be created wherever a person happens to be. The practice of mindfulness pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, emphasizes calm and quiet in a world overloaded with frenetic activity.

Through mindfulness, the practitioner focuses on the moment, recognizing that each one holds something unique. By pausing to appreciate the moment and being fully present, people can make peace with the things that stress, scare or threaten them, recognizing those dangers are just a sliver of a whole, healed self. In addition, each moment becomes crystalline and precious.

Practitioner Elana Rosenbaum, at first overwhelmed when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995, used her mindfulness training to “consciously bring attention to the present moment as clearly and as kindly as possible, with direct perception, direct experience.”

The stem cell treatment she had to undergo was painful and kept her isolated. She focused on her breathing, closing her eyes and thinking only about her breath. Even though her lung capacity was impaired, she breathed slow, deep breaths. She mentally scanned her body, noting each minuscule sensation. She did not distance herself from the pain, but observed it without labeling it “good” or “bad.”

The meditation eased Rosenbaum’s recovery, and Susan Bauer-Wu, MD, took notice. Bauer-Wu had already been studying how the mind affects physical health through its impact on the nervous and immune systems.

Inspired by Rosenbaum, Bauer-Wu began examining the effect of mindful meditation on cancer patients. She says she found “consistent benefits — improved psychological functioning, reduction of stress symptoms, enhanced coping and well-being.”

In general, people who use mindful meditation are less stressed and experience less fatigue, reported Bauer-Wu, an associate professor of nursing at Emory University.

Such meditation also seems to improve immune function, she has found, although more research in that area is needed.

“By using a mindfulness practice,” Bauer-Wu says, “you end up being OK with what is and being fully aware of your present.”

Mindful meditation may be particularly useful for cancer patients, she says.

“For most people, an average person in modern society, it’s pretty common to think about things we’ve already done or to plan what we are going to do next,” Bauer-Wu says. “Cancer patients may have regrets or blame about their past and what may have caused their cancer, and how they’ve lived their life. And for the future, they have a fear of recurrence or that they are going to die, or how they are going to be impacted by the cancer.”

Mindful meditation can help a patient focus on those fears and see them for what they are— transient emotions, she says.

“If you can notice it, you can just see the fear for what it is; you can just see the discomfort, and not the worry.”

To try mindful meditation, Rosenbaum, a practitioner for 30 years, recommends taking a moment to S.T.O.P., as she describes it:

“Stop, pause, look around you; notice whatever is happening.

“Take a breath.

“Observe, and open to the experience without struggling against it.

“Proceed,” she explains.

“Just being willing to pause and stop, look around, observe what is happening, really allow it, whatever it is, including thoughts, feelings, sensations, allows you to proceed more calmly, carefully, and lets you notice more,” says Rosenbaum.

Noticing these feelings and sensations, without allowing them to take control, creates a more peaceful and healing environment.

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Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have been started in hospitals and universities across the country. The University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, Medicine, Health Care, and Society lists 335 registered mindfulness leaders. To find one, go to www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mbsr/.

Bauer-Wu recommends reading Full Catastrophe Living, by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.

To contact Rosenbaum with any questions about mindfulness meditation, go to www.mindfuliving.com.