An oncology nurse scientist is studying whether stress can harm cognitive functioning — and how practicing mindfulness might help.
A CANCER DIAGNOSIS IS one of the most stressful, lifechanging experiences a human being might face. Between countless trips to the infusion center, other medical appointments, mounting health worries, financial strain and concern about the effects on loved ones and caregivers, stress may seem like the one constant of the experience.
Unfortunately, stress affects not just psychological health but also a patient’s overall well-being, potentially worsening symptoms.
Recognizing this risk, John Merriman, Ph.D., RN, a member of the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS), an oncology nurse scientist and assistant professor at New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing, in New York City, decided to research the way stress affects patients with cancer and how they can use mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques to mitigate that burden.
“MBSR has been around for a few decades now outside of oncology,” Merriman says. “There are courses and sessions you can attend to learn MBSR practices. But mindfulness techniques for most people are simply defined as a way of learning to be present in the moment. It’s about not being lost in your thoughts. Mindfulness has been shown to improve issues related to anxiety and high stress. It allows patients to learn how to take things as they come and not have to react to everything.”
Patients can incorporate a number of these techniques into their daily routines to help mitigate stress. “Yoga can be a great mindfulness technique because it’s not always physical. Most yoga has some aspect of mindfulness of the body and your movements,” Merriman says. “Those not interested in yoga can use very simple forms of meditation, such as sitting meditation, which is something patients can do for 10 minutes at a time. There are plenty of practical ways patients can use MBSR.”
Through rigorous investigation, oncology professionals have quantified the benefits of MBSR. Merriman’s focus is on the body’s response to the techniques and how the strategies can help patients with cancer. His research examines how stress affects the cognitive function of patients with cancer. Typically, patients find it difficult to focus or accomplish tasks, and they feel that they’ve slowed down since they were diagnosed.
“One of the possible reasons for these cognitive changes is stress,” Merriman says. “It could be stress related to the diagnosis itself — psychological stress — or it could be physical stress related to the cancer and treatment. My research is starting to look at how MBSR techniques can help patients improve their cognitive functioning. We’re looking at brain imaging, alongside self-reporting and neuropsychological assessments, to really understand how MBSR practices impact the brain and overall outcomes for patients.”
Getting his research funded was no easy task. Merriman’s grant proposal underwent intense critical review to ensure that it addressed the requirements needed to receive funding.
For many, this is a daunting, difficult path. To make sure his proposal was ready to submit, Merriman looked to his experienced colleagues and participated in the ONS Foundation Oncology Nurse Scientist Intensive, a program that brings together accomplished nurse scientists to review grant proposals from novice researchers.
Merriman recalls his time at the intensive: “It’s a really unique opportunity to get good, critical feedback on the grant proposal you’re working on. The scientists who gave me feedback were experienced and had good track records of receiving funding themselves, most having been funded through the National Institutes of Health.”
With his colleagues’ help, Merriman revised, adjusted and focused his grant proposal. His project received the funding it needed from the National Institute of Nursing Research, enabling him to pursue his research into the ways MBSR techniques can help patients cope with cognitive changes.