How Mindfulness Meditation May Help Ease Stress and Anxiety in Cancer Survivors, and Where to Start

Published on: 
Heal, Heal® Summer 2022, Volume 10, Issue 2

As part of its Heal at Home series, CURE® collaborated with a clinical health psychologist at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center to provide cancer survivors an easy-to-understand guide to start meditating.

Many cancer survivors may think the stress and anxiety are cured along with the disease, but that is not always the case. Stress, anxiety and pain can remain after cancer treatment has ended but practicing daily meditation may help.

Meditation is a mind-body complementary therapy that research has shown improves mood and sleep, in addition to helping with anxiety and pain. These are side effects that cancer survivors commonly encounter as a result of their disease and treatment. So how can meditation help and how to start?

Erin O’Carroll Bantum, a clinical health psychologist at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center spoke with Heal®, a sister publication of CURE®, about meditation.

What is meditation and how can it help?

There are many different types of meditation, Bantum explained, but she primarily focuses on mindfulness meditation for cancer survivors.

Mindfulness meditation allows someone to notice their racing thoughts and sensations in their body, and oftentimes, in simply noticing, the body and mind can calm. Bantum described mindfulness meditation as “paying attention to what is,” noticing experiences and being with them but not attaching to them.

As previously mentioned, research has demonstrated that mindfulness mediation can improve things such as pain, how pain is perceived, anxiety and stress. And current research is evaluating if it also can improve neuropathy — a common side effect in cancer survivors.

“I like to think of it as more of an umbrella intervention,” she explained. “There are going to be specific side or late effects that we will want to impact (with meditation) that are bothersome to people. But the general practice is to really look at our overall experience. … As we do that and extend that into our everyday life, it becomes relevant in interactions with others (and) it can improve our function and social interactions.”

Bantum added that many cancer survivors who come to her looking for a new approach to ease what they are going through often feel isolated. They may feel lost after treatment is over and that others don’t understand what they are going through. Meditation has been shown to improve mood, so this might be helpful for cancer survivors who are feeling this way, Bantum explained.

“I think building those habits in general … such as mindfulness meditation … having those things we can consistently do for our physical and mental health, I think that stability is really grounding when the experience of cancer can be so ungrounding,” she said.

Tips for meditating

Bantum noted that it is important to make a commitment to meditation — she said the best way to reap the benefits is to practice every day. It is not a long process, she said. A good start would be five to 10 minutes then working up to 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation, either first thing in the morning or right before bed.

“I think sometimes if we expect something unreasonable, in terms of how much time we actually have to devote, we can feel overwhelmed and then we might not practice at all,” she added. “Try to suspend any judgment about the experience for a while. Give yourself a few weeks if you can, and even if it feels like it’s going nowhere, see how it really feels to continue the practice. The best way to know what to keep including in your life is to really feel it out yourself, especially if you can sit through some natural discomfort to see what’s underneath.”

A step-by-step guide to start meditating

Bantum explained that meditation can be overwhelming at first. When sitting down and trying not to think of anything, often everything then comes to mind. But if a cancer survivor would like to try meditation, she recommends following these steps:

  1. Find a quiet space without distractions to practice.
  2. Sit in a comfortable position that allows you to be alert but also relaxed and upright.
  3. Rest your arms on your legs or on the arms of a chair — somewhere they are comfortable.
  4. Lightly close your eyes.
  5. Breathe in through your nose, expanding your belly with air and releasing through your nose. Perhaps let a few long inhales out through your mouth, as well.
  6. Finally, be with the thoughts that come to mind but do not attach to them. Focus on breathing and try to simply notice whatever is the feeling you experience, in the moment.

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