How Patients With Cancer Can Boost Their ‘Mindfulness Muscle’ and Improve Resiliency

Mindfulness practices have been associated with improved mental health outcomes in patients with cancer. Here, an expert shares tips on how patients can strengthen their “mindfulness muscle.”

Cancer survivors and caregivers alike can use the practice of mindfulness to build resilience, and there are plenty of resources available that can guide users through the process, according to Loren Winters.

Winters, an oncology nurse practitioner and associate director of breast cancer survivorship at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Cancer Center in Boston, recently discussed mindfulness and resilience at CURE®’s Educated Patient® Breast Cancer Summit.

“In a nutshell, mindfulness is paying attention on purpose. It’s not necessarily about filling or clearing the mind, but it’s about being present simply to what is,” Winters said, noting that this is often more difficult that it seems, since people are conditioned to be in a stress state. People are often in what’s called a “fight-or-flight” response, which can have negative impacts on health.

Chronic stress can result in physical issues, from headaches and fatigue to anxiety, productivity loss, and unhealthy coping behaviors. However, as there is a stress response, there is also a relaxation response, Winters explained.

“Contrary to the stress response, which occurs subconsciously, the relaxation response needs to be consciously activated, and it requires practice,” Winters said. She cited the work of Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist who described the relaxation response as the common effect of mindfulness practices, including yoga, meditation and deep religious prayer. Benson found that this practice has health benefits, especially for people with high blood pressure.

The Benson-Henry Institute at MGH has guided relaxation exercises that patients and their family members can access anywhere, anytime.

By taking 15 to 20 minutes each day to focus on mindfulness – be it through a guided exercise, or by relaxing the body and focusing on a mantra (a repeated word or phrase) – individuals can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can cause “a cascade effect on body systems,” Winters said.

“In fact, research (in) measuring brain activity has shown that mindfulness and relaxation practices can actually strengthen certain parts of the brain that are responsible for these important functions: deliberate control decision-making, memory, awareness, and perception, depending on which method is being used,” Winters said.

Mindfulness can also benefit the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems, reduce inflammation, improve cell immunity, release tension, and improve mental health and its related issues, such as anxiety and sleep problems in patients with cancer, according to Winters.

In her presentation, Winters offered five tips on how people can build their mindfulness “muscle.” They are:

  • Work with a trainer, be it a mindfulness teacher, through a class or app, or with a book.
  • Increase reps, meaning gradually increasing the amount of time spent doing mindfulness exercises, working up to a daily practice.
  • Get enough rest.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Build practice into everyday activities. This can be through something simple, like taking a few moments to do a body scan, taking inventory of how each body part feels, from your head to your toes.

Through mindfulness practice, cancer survivors can build their resilience, which is defined as, “the ability of the body to recover from or easily adjust to misfortune or change.”

“So for cancer survivors, use of coping skills led to an opportunity for personal growth or positive adaptation,” Winters said, citing research that analyzed resilience in patients with cancer.

“Mindfulness and resilience are more easily cultivated with simple strategies that can be practiced in everyday life,” Winters concluded.

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