Mindfulness Can Decrease Anxiety and Build Resiliency in Cancer Survivors

March 18, 2021
Brielle Benyon

An expert from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center recently spoke with CURE® and discussed how mindfulness can benefit cancer survivors.

Cancer survivors can use the power of mindfulness to build resiliency and decrease the stress and anxiety that often accompanies a diagnosis, says Loren Winters, a nurse practitioner at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston.

Winters – who presented on this topic at CURE®’s Educated Patient® Breast Cancer Summit – recently spoke with CURE® and discussed the benefits of mindfulness, as well as some tips that patients can use before an anxiety-provoking procedure.

CURE®: Can you give an overview of mindfulness and resiliency, and how they’re related?

Winters: Mindfulness is essentially a tool amongst many to build resilience …. It is an Eastern concept, an Eastern practice that goes back probably thousands of years and, and here in the West, we've adopted it more recently, but in big ways.

When I started here in oncology, a lot of people didn't know really what yoga was, or understand it, or could cancer patients do it? And now, there's a plethora of options that exist both through medical centers in there if they have an integrative therapies program, like we do, but also out there in the community. And now of course, virtually in droves. So the access has been viral, which is really great.

There's a lot of options in terms of doing mindfulness practices. And I think this idea of resiliency is just started to emerge, I don't think people quite still grasp what that is. But if you ask someone to describe someone they know, that is very resilient, they can easily do that. So it's sort of trying to put that together. Now, it's not just about mindfulness, but it's also about how you take care of yourself like the basics, sleep, good food, exercise, being with others who are building you up, that kind of thing.

What are the benefits of mindfulness for cancer survivors?

Mindfulness, in essence, teaches one to be fully present in whatever moment that's happening. So it may be good, it may be bad. It might have a label, but whatever that moment is, (it is) what it is. To be (mindful is to be) fully present, to be fully aware of what's going on without judging it without attaching a story – it is incredibly powerful.

Once one is diagnosed with cancer (it can) go from zero to 60, very fast. You know, there's a huge fear of mortality … fear of recurrence in our survivors. But you know, it's not what's actually happening right now, the storyline can balloon and get very big, and that can create a lot of anxiety. As we know, anxiety, and depression are very common in cancer survivors and cancer patients.

I really like that that RAIN mnemonic that I used in my presentation: Recognize what am I feeling right now? What's going on? And then you sort of go through naming it, then looking inward: what do I need right now? Maybe I'm exhausted, maybe that's part of why I'm going in 1,000 directions, and then just pulling it back to, “Oops, sorry (that) this keeps happening.”

So I think in that realm, (mindfulness) can be very effective, as well as even prior to procedures and blood draws. Having a little mini (mindfulness practice) that one might do before going into an anxiety-provoking or even a pain-provoking procedure can be effective and can take the edge off whatever's going on in that moment.

When is the best time to introduce mindfulness in the cancer journey?

Frankly, I wish it could start as early as screening and diagnosis. But what I found, even though we have all these wonderful resources, (and that patients) could enroll in a resiliency training program right off the bat, it’s too much all at once for most folks. Maybe there's a couple that might do that. But in most (cases), they need to go at their own pace; they need to come to it when they're ready. And not everybody wants it, but those that do, I think (are) seekers (and) they're looking for this stuff. And maybe their provider suggests it and (the patient says they) would like to learn these tools.

I haven't had a patient yet who's come back and said, “That was a waste of time.” It's like, “Whoa, I can really use tools like these, that was really helpful.” Again, it's about when and where, and who, but if it's something (they’re) open to, it can be very beneficial.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.