If you’re being treated for cancer, it’s likely you have a team of medical experts involved in your care. But did you know that complementary medicine has a host of tools that can be very beneficial while you’re in treatment, too?
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) encompasses everything from nutritional supplements and herbs to meditation and yoga. Many of these practices have gained wide acceptance among both patients and healthcare professionals. Of people who have been diagnosed with cancer, 65 percent report utilizing complementary medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Why People Are Turning to CAM
People turn to CAM for various personal reasons. Some people like the feeling of empowerment at a time when they feel vulnerable. Others value the holistic approach, addressing the interconnectedness of mind and body. And many people have reported that CAM has helped them find relief from the physical and emotional symptoms associated with cancer treatment.
Your cancer treatment may include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy. All of these therapies have their own side effects. During cancer treatment, many people experience one or more of the following:
- nausea and vomiting
- indigestion and bloating
- loss of appetite
As a cancer patient, you understand too well that the effects of cancer are not just physical. It’s also common for cancer to affect your emotional health. It’s normal to experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, anger, anxiety, and depression. Meditation is most beneficial in helping improve your emotional health.
Types of Meditation
Mindfulness meditation involves tuning out the world around you. It’s a stress reduction technique that helps you relate to your life and situations in new ways, without necessarily challenging how you process things as a whole. It teaches you to focus on the moment, your breathing, and your body. When your mind strays to thoughts or feelings, you renew your focus on your breathing or body.
Research shows that mindfulness exercises can improve stress and quality of life for women who are breast cancer survivors. Even brief mindfulness meditation sessions have been shown to reduce mood disturbance, fatigue, and other stress-related symptoms in cancer patients. The study also concluded that the benefits increase the more you practice.
Nondirective meditation is similar to mindfulness. However, instead of blocking your thoughts, memories, and emotions, you allow them to flow through your consciousness without judgment. Research shows that nondirective meditation can help people process emotions and gain perspective on past experiences and feelings.
When you practice concentrative meditation, also called one-pointed meditation, you focus on just one thing. What that “thing” is can vary. It might be:
- your breathing
- a candle flame
- a mental image, such as a beach
- an object that’s meaningful to you
- a word, phrase, or mantra, like “om” which is used in many Eastern religions
Meditation Exercises You Can Use
1. Mindfulness: Walking Meditation
- Wear comfortable clothing and shoes suitable for walking.
- Ideally, plan to walk for about 20 minutes, in an area that’s safe from traffic.
- Use the best posture with which you are comfortable and walk with your eyes straight ahead, watching the path you are taking.
- As you’re walking, focus your mind on the motion of your feet. What muscles are involved in your feet, legs, hips? What does it feel like when you lift your foot, pushing up from your heel to the ball of your foot, then to your toes?
- What does the ground feel like as you take steps? Do you hear the sound of your footsteps? Do your arms instinctively move with your legs? If they do, what muscles are they using?
2. Nondirective: Meditation Exercise
- Meditate in a quiet room, free of distractions.
- Sit, with your eyes closed, in a comfortable chair.
- Some types of nondirective meditation incorporate chanting a sound. This is done by chanting a sound in your mind, over and over again, at a tempo that feels natural to you. The sound should not be a word and should not have meaning or association for you.
- You are not trying to empty your mind during this type of meditation. Instead, allow thoughts, images, and sensations to flow through your mind, without judgment or analysis.
- Ideally, you’ll perform this meditation daily, for about 20 minutes. But there are no set times for nondirective meditation.
3. Concentrative: Meditation Exercise
- Meditate in a quiet room, free of distractions.
- Sit in a comfortable chair or on the floor.
- You will focus on chanting a mantra — a word or sound. You can chant out loud or in your head. What will your mantra be? It can be “om,” a word from your religious tradition, or a word or phrase, such as “peace” or “heal me.” Disciples of the Dalai Lama chant “Om Mani Padme Hum.” Its meaning is compassion or benevolence.
- Chant “om” as you exhale. Inhale. Chant “om” as you exhale. Inhale. Repeat throughout the exercise.
- The speed and rhythm of the mantra should feel natural to you. A natural flow and a vibration will be integral to the mantra.
- There’s no set time for concentrative meditation. Some experts recommend 30 minutes each day.
- MD Anderson Cancer Center has a number of audio exercises for meditation and other mind-body practices. Also provided are audio casts on CAM.
- The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center offers free guided mindfulness meditations that are especially helpful if you’ve not practiced meditation before.
- The American Mindfulness Research Center has a number of tests you can download that will help you evaluate your own mindfulness skills.
- The NCCIH and National Cancer Institute offers a free, downloadable guide with information on complementary health approaches and alternative medicine for cancer patients.