Integrative Medicine - Meditation and Cancer
Medically reviewed by C.H. Weaver M.D. Medical Editor 8/2018
In that moment, the world starts to spin in ways you didn’t know were possible. You embark on a journey that no travel agent could have prepared you for, full of doctor appointments, tests, treatments, blood counts…and an underlying sense of fear that you just can’t seem to shake.
In the midst of all of this, how can you possibly find a sense of peace? Your initial instinct might be to run for the hills, but before you do that, consider another option: sit still and breathe.
Many experts advocate meditation as a useful tool for relieving fear and anxiety and restoring calm. “I believe all illness is a result of being out of balance and meditation is a way to restore that balance,” says Diane Crist, MA, a Jungian psychotherapist and proponent of meditation.
Meditation, also called imagery or visualization, refers to full concentration of the mind. Some people might initially shy away from meditation practice, envisioning monks levitating high in the Himalyas, but the truth is that meditation is accessible to everyone.
Laura Kupperman, a cancer survivor and yoga instructor, has experienced first hand the value of meditation during treatment and beyond. “Meditation is so important,” Kupperman stresses. “There is such an intricate link between the state of your breath and your emotional state. Anything you can do to tap into a relaxed state gives the body a chance to rebuild. Research supports that when the body is relaxed, the immune system is stronger, and when the body is stressed and worn down, the immune system is compromised. It is important to maintain a calm state.”
Meditation generally involves techniques designed to control and discipline the mind so that it is not overrun with useless thoughts, fantasies and fears. Often, newcomers to meditation misunderstand the technique and believe that the purpose is to clear their mind totally, becoming frustrated when they are unable to make their mind blank. But this is impossible. The mind can never be blank, but it can be trained.
The options for escape in our society are unlimited: television, Internet, video games, exercise and more. However, the problem with all of these escape tools is that they only provide temporary relief from real anxiety. And because what we resist usually persists, ignoring our fears and anxieties only causes them to escalate. Hours in front of the television won’t eliminate anxiety; it will simply prolong it.
For this reason, the typical escape tools are useless in the face of cancer. The unique sense of anxiety and fear that cancer perpetuates cannot be placated with a few hours of escape. Instead, this anxiety requires something entirely different: our attention.
With this in mind, it’s time to turn inward and utilize our own resources to quiet the mind and create a sense of calm. We all possess two invaluable tools for tapping into peace: the mind and the breath. Rather than fostering a sense of escape, these tools offer a chance for an “inscape” and a chance to truly slow down and release anxiety.
“Our brainwaves are usually on a beta frequency, for example, when we’re talking or doing something,” Crist explains. “The theta frequency, on the other hand, is slower and wider apart. Meditation helps us to reach that theta frequency.”
Crist has been meditating regularly for over 30 years. In fact, meditation has become an integral part of her psychotherapy practice. She introduces the technique to many of her patients and even offers a free weekly meditation for anyone interested in meditating. She believes that a daily meditation practice provides an important opportunity for balance.
“If you focus on the breath, you’ll hear your heartbeat. Every day, if I check in and focus on my heart, then I don’t get too off balance,” Crist says.
For cancer patients, daily facing the challenges of physical and emotional stress that their illness brings, this balance can seem an especially tough challenge and achieving it an incredible blessing.
How Do You Meditate? Let Us Count the Ways
There are countless meditation techniques, some of which have been passed down through ancient traditions. Every technique has value; however, you don’t need any special tools to meditate. All that is required during meditation is to sit still and enter into the quiet space in the mind that most people typically try to avoid by engaging in an endless stream of activities.
The first step, then, for most of us, is to pause. Take a step back and make a conscious decision to take the time to be still. Or, as meditation practitioners and self-help gurus like to say, “Sit with it.” However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. In a culture where more is better, sitting runs contrary to our lifestyle. Sitting is a start, but it will take more than sitting to quiet the mind, especially a mind overcome with fear of cancer.
Once you’ve made the decision to take time out and sit quietly, the next step is to notice your breath. The mind and the breath are inextricably linked. The breath is the pathway to relaxation and this relaxation is the pathway to the mind. By focusing on your breath, you can quiet your mind and enter a state of calm.
“There are many different meditation techniques, but they all share one common theme: the breath,” Crist says. “There are all sorts of little tricks to help keep the mind on the breath, but it doesn’t have to be too complicated. I just try to get people to breathe in and down and exhale up and out.”
Some meditation practitioners simply take time to breathe and get quiet, while others find it helpful to use imagery and visualization tools. (See our sidebar describing several visualization techniques.)
“Imagery is huge,” says Ame Onofrey, a yoga instructor in Vail, Colorado , who works with students from all walks of life on healing what ails them. “I teach my students to see themselves in a posture, see themselves as healthy and whole, and choose to walk the path of life, not the path of death.”
While the combination of breathing and imagery are enough to transport some people to peace, others recommend another step: the use of a mantra, which is a word or phrase repeated over and over to focus the mind. A mantra does not have to be a Sanskrit or holy word; it can be any word or phrase that has meaning for you. For example, cancer patients might benefit from repeating the phrase “I am healthy.”
Any advocate of meditation will tell you that it doesn’t matter how you do it, it just matters that you do it. By sitting quietly and focusing on the breath, you’ll tap into a state of peace that you probably didn’t know was there.
Crist suggests a consistent meditation practice. “Most people get overwhelmed when they think they have to sit for 20 or 30 minutes. Five minutes is great. Consistency is important. Five minutes every day is better than 20 minutes once a week,” she says.
Furthermore, Crist recommends creating a ritual of sameness to a meditation practice. “Sit in the same place, on the same cushion, ring the same bell, smell the same smell. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs….after a certain time, all you have to do is just sit on that cushion and you’re there,” she says.
And where is “there”? It’s that place of peace inside each of us, a place that cancer can’t touch, a place where all you have to do is sit still and breathe.