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Meditation: It Can Make you Feel Better

separator Having cancer, and getting treated for it, can be stressful, sometimes painful, sometimes anxiety-producing and sometimes it can make sleep difficult. That’s why a lot of people who do have cancer look for ways to calm down and help them focus on what they need to focus on: getting better and enjoying the precious moments life offers. Meditation is one of the more common avenues that people have explored.

What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice that helps quiet the mind. Most of us lead busy lives. We often feel as if we rarely get a breather. This busyness affects the mind as well as the body. There’s a term called “monkey mind,” meaning your mind is constantly jumping back and forth from one thought to the next, never settling down, never giving you a moment’s peace. If you have cancer, your monkey mind can go into overdrive, worrying about the next doctor’s appointment, the next chemo treatment, etc. Meditation can help tame your monkey mind.

People who meditate on a regular basis claim they feel more relaxed, often not just in their minds but in their bodies as well. There are lots of different types of meditation and schools of thought about it. Quiet contemplation, payer or focusing on the breath are considered forms of meditation. You can learn meditation from monks or Zen masters or your pastor or from books.

How does meditation work?
To be honest, there’s been little research done on how, exactly, meditation works. Many people who do meditate will say that it calms them down, makes them feel less anxious and helps them keep things in perspective. And some studies, although small, have shown that some cancer patients do benefit from meditation.

For example, in one study, a group of 89 patients with various types and stages of cancer participated in a meditation-based stress reduction program. The program consisted of a meditation group for an hour and a half per week and daily practice sessions at home for seven weeks All 89 participants filled out questionnaires about their moods and stress levels before the program began. At the end of the seven weeks, 80 participants filled out the questionnaires again, and six months afterwards, 59 patients provided follow-up information.

Results showed fewer mood disturbances and less stress both right after the intervention and at the six-month follow-up. But studies like these, while interesting, are small, and they don’t compare one group that meditates and one group that doesn’t, so the results are not as reliable as studies that do make this type of comparison.

A possible “relaxation effect” in the brain
A new study is producing new information that sheds more light on how meditation works. It’s tested a theory that says people who are feeling stressed out, anxious or depressed have a higher level of activity in the right frontal cortex of the brain. The flip side of the theory is that people who tend to be more calm and happy have greater activity in the left frontal cortex.

The study, conducted at the University of Wisconsin, looked at “stressed out” volunteer participants who worked at a high technology firm in Madison. Researchers split the volunteers into two groups, a meditation group and a non-meditation group. At the outset, all the volunteers had EEGs performed, which tested their brain waves. Twenty-five were placed in a meditation group, and 16 in the non-meditation group.

The meditators took an 8-week course. At the end of the eight weeks, both groups got EEGs again. The brains of the participants in the meditation group showed a “pronounced shift” toward the left frontal lobe, leading researchers to believe that regular meditation may be able to cause a change in the brain’s “set point.” Results of the study are set to be published soon in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Researchers in the field of meditation believe that practicing regular meditation, or what many call “the relaxation response,” can lower blood pressure and heart rate, help with sleep problems, reduce feelings of anger and hostility and help alleviate some types of depression.

Nobody’s here to tell you that meditation is a cancer treatment. But people with cancer need peace of mind. They need to be able to focus on taking good care of themselves and on healing. It’s easier to do that if you’re not feeling afraid, anxious and stressed out.

Regular meditation doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Some teachers and practitioners suggest that two 15- or 20-minutes sessions per day can provide a lot of benefit. It can be difficult to start meditating on your own, although it’s not impossible. You may find it most helpful to take a class or to learn one-on-one with an instructor. Regular classes and lessons not only provide you with good information about how to begin. They also help keep you motivated to continue on, much the same way doing a yoga class just once a week keeps you practicing on your own at home on the days you don’t go to class.

If you’re interested in learning more about meditation, ask your doctor or any of your cancer healthcare providers to point you in the right direction. If they can’t help you, you can try looking under “meditation” in your local yellow pages. Or go to the nearest health food store, yoga center or t’ai chi class and see whether there’s a bulletin board. Reliable instructors often put flyers in places like that.

The American Cancer Society’s Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Methods, The American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Georgia, 2000; The Boston Globe, 22 April 2003; New York Times Health and Science Section, 4 February 2003; Supportive Care in Cancer, (2001) 9: 112-123
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