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Meditation Relieves Cancer Symptoms and Side Effects and Increases Survivorship

To relieve suffering and improve quality of life, cancer survivors can choose from a variety of options, and each must decide what works for him or her. Meditation may just be one of those options.

In fact, many cancer survivors adopting meditation as part of a self-directed, integrative care approach. A recent survey found that 50 percent of breast cancer survivors used some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for cancer purposes — most frequently: meditation, visual imagery and spiritual healing (Saquib et al, 2012). The American Cancer Society, in fact, recommends meditation as a method of complementary cancer management, emphasizing the importance of meditation’s ability to connect mind, body and spirit.

While there is not yet an extensive body of published research on how meditation impacts cancer, many new studies and clinical trials are underway. There is good evidence to show that meditation can relieve cancer symptoms and treatment side effects, facilitate healing and recovery, and increase survivorship. There’s even some evidence to suggest that meditation may help prevent cancer, or at least significantly reduce the risk of developing it in the first place. A large U.S. study of medical care utilization found that regular meditators were 55.4 percent less likely to be hospitalized for cancer (Orme-Johnson, 1997).

Here are some key ways that meditation may help combat cancer and treatment side effects…

  • Relieves stress, which impedes healing and has been linked to increased tumor growth and recurrence
  • Helps relieve common cancer side effects (e.g., fatigue, stress, depression, sleep disturbance, nausea, and immune dysfunction)
  • Relieves chronic pain
  • Enables emotional self-regulation, reduces anxiety, improves mood and boosts coping skills and resilience
  • Reduces levels of cortisol, which can help control cancer, reduce inflammation and boost immunity
  • Boosts immune function (including T-cell function), facilitating faster healing and recovery and increasing survival rates
  • Reduces cell-damaging oxidative stress (reducing proinflammatory cytokines)
  • Combats cognitive impairments such as problems with memory and sustained attention
  • Influences key neurotransmitters and neurohormones that regulate mental and physical health

Stress, Cancer and Meditation

Stress diminishes the immune system’s ability to combat infection and tumor growth. For example, the stress receptor neuropeptide Y (NPY) stimulates growth and migration of breast cancer cells (Medeiros et al, 2011). And psychosocial stress (e.g., fear, anxiety and feeling isolated) has even been found to contribute to tumor aggressiveness in breast cancer patients (American Association for Cancer Research, 2011).

Meditation is widely accepted as an effective strategy for reducing the harmful effects of stress. Several studies of breast cancer survivors, have shown that meditation program lowers blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate, improves mood and quality of life and enhances coping skills. A comprehensive study of 49 breast cancer patients and 10 prostate cancer patients investigated the longer-term relationships between meditation and a range of key cancer biomarkers. In 6- and 12-month followups, researchers found that in addition to enhancing quality of life and decreasing stress symptoms, meditation systematically decreased cortisol levels and blood pressure. Immune patterns over the 12-month period revealed a continued reduction in Th1 (pro-inflammatory) cytokines (Carlson et al, 2007).

The emotional regulation effects of meditation help keep us from getting caught up in a spiral of distress and despair. Meditation elevates mood, promotes optimism and positive emotions, and restores a sense of control. Sahaja meditation teaches us to objectively acknowledge and release the intrusive negative thoughts and feelings that often accompany a cancer diagnosis and prepares our minds and bodies to cope with stressful circumstances. For a look at how Sahaja meditation can help, see Meditation as Emotional Regulator, as well as our comprehensive sections on anxiety and depression.

Cortisol

When the body is under stress, the adrenal cortex ramps up secretion of steroid hormones, particularly the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol helps regulate inflammation, the body’s natural response to injury or infection, but chronic, prolonged high levels of cortisol in the bloodstream damage the immune system.

Many studies have established that meditation has a lasting influence on adrenocortical activity (steroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands) — both during meditation and after. Regular meditators, in fact, have been found to have significantly lower levels of cortisol (Sudsuang et al, 1991; Newberg, Iverson, 2003). During meditation, respiration and heart rates decrease, which reduces activity in areas of the brain that trigger production of stress-related hormones, including cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and ACTH (Newberg, Iverson, 2003). Several studies have found that urine and plasma cortisol levels are decreased during meditation (Livesey J. H., et al, 2000; Walton, K., et al, 1995; Sudsuang, R., 1991; Jevning, R., 1978).

Oxidative Stress

One of the mechanisms through which meditation may help prevent cancer is by reducing the level of oxidative stress in our bodies. Some studies have found that oxidative stress is significantly lower among those who practice meditation (Van Wijk et al, 2008; Sharma et al, 2008).

Oxidative stress is a destructive process in which free radicals or reactive oxygen molecules react with the components of cells (e.g., proteins or fats and nucleic acids such as DNA), ultimately damaging those cells. Oxidative stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which, in turn, plays a role in chronic diseases such as cancer. In activating inflammatory pathways, oxidative stress can transform normal cells to tumor cells and trigger treatment complications such as chemo-resistance or radio-resistance (Reuter, 2010).

(For an in-depth look at how Sahaja meditation relieves stress, see Stress Therapy: How Sahaja Meditation Relieves Stress.

Inflammation and the Immune System

Oxidative stress, chronic inflammation, and cancer are closely linked. It’s no secret that a compromised immune system makes us more vulnerable to cancer and impairs the body’s ability to recover from treatments. While inflammation is part of the body’s natural immune response, chronic, out-of-control inflammation plays a significant role in driving the disease process of cancer.

Studies have found that meditation boosts immune system function by increasing antibody production (Davidson et al, 2003), boosting T-cell function in women with breast cancer (Walker, 1999; Carlson et al, 2003), reducing stress symptoms, and transforming depressive immune patterns in men with prostate cancer  and women with breast cancer to a healthier immune profile (Carlson et al, 2003).

A 2002 Columbia University study found that meditation slows the heart rate via signals that travel through the vagus nerve, which links the brain to the immune system. Because the vagus nerve controls production of a protein (tumor necrosis factor) that signals the body to mount an inflammatory response, these same signals may also ease the symptoms of inflammatory diseases.

Studies have shown that meditation may even help regulate the expression of certain genes that play a role in causing cancer. One study found that meditation significantly reduced the pro-inflammatory gene expression and blood levels of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation (Creswell et al, 2012). Meditation’s ability to lower inflammation levels is particularly important because inflammation plays a significant role in driving the disease process of cancer, as well as a host of other serious illnesses.

Melatonin’s role

Meditation increases our levels of the antioxidant “sleep hormone” melatonin, famously known for regulating our circadian rhythm (sleeping and waking) patterns and helping us get a good night’s sleep. But recent studies suggest that melatonin may play many side roles. Melatonin acts as an antioxidant and immunomodulator — it stimulates our immune and antioxidative defense systems (Massion et al., 1995). Melatonin’s antioxidant properties help fight the damage wreaked on us by free radicals, such helps stop wear-and-tear damage to cells.

A few studies have found that melatonin may even have cancer-fighting properties. One study found that melatonin significantly inhibited tumor growth, possibly by modulating the endocrine and immune systems and even by taking direct oncostatic action against tumor cells. Antioxidative action is known to counter DNA damage during radiation treatment and/or exposure to chemical carcinogens (Pawlikowski M., et al, 2002). A meta-study of 10 clinical trials of melatonin levels in tumor patients found that melatonin also significantly reduced the risk of death at one-year follow-up (Mills et al., 2005). Melatonin also reduces pain sensitivity and has been closely linked to serotonin’s ability to influence depression, positive emotions, stress-prevention and aging.

Several studies of meditation have revealed increases in blood plasma levels of melatonin (Harinath et al., 2004; Massion et al., 1995; Solberg et al., 2000a, 2004a, b; Tooley et al., 2000) in long-term meditators, as well as acutely after meditation.

(For a comprehensive look at how meditation influences other neurotransmitters and neurohormones, see Evidence of Meditation’s Impact on Neurotransmitters and Neurohormones.)

Meditation and cancer-related cognitive impairments

Cognitive impairment is a serious cancer-related side effect that greatly diminishes quality of life, but only recently has it gained widespread attention in the research community. Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy are known to cause problems with memory and attention in cancer survivors. But other factors can play a role, including reduced hormone levels, hormone therapies, proinflammatory immune response, fatigue, distress and of course, the cancer itself (Biegler et al, 2009).

The relationship between cellular immunity, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction is complicated. Immune function changes in cancer patients have been associated with cognitive dysfunction. For instance, increased cytokine levels in patients with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia or Myelodysplastic Syndrome have been associated with cognitive impairment (Meyers, 2005).  Cancer-related cognitive impairment can result from proinflammatory cytokines directly interfering with normal brain function, from a lack of motivation or self-efficacy due to persistent fatigue, or a combination of both factors (Bower, Ganz, 2007). Proinflammatory cytokines, which can be secreted in response to emotional or physical stressors (e.g., as an immune response to a tumor or chemotherapy, have been linked with declines in memory and planning abilities in cancer survivors (Bower, Ganz, 2002).

Neuroimaging studies have shown brain abnormalities in white and gray matter and cortical function in breast cancer patients who received chemotherapy. Gray and white matter reductions in breast cancer survivors have been reported one year post-chemotherapy, as compared to breast cancer survivors who had never received chemotherapy (Inagaki, 2007). More recently, studies have found that cancer survivors may experience problems with mental abilities for three years or more after treatment, regardless of whether they were treated with chemotherapy plus radiation or radiation only (Phillips et al, 2011). Other studies have found metabolic abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex resulting from chemotherapy and tamoxifen treatment (Silverman et al, 2003, 2006).

Cancer-related pharmaceuticals may help relieve cognitive deficits, but are generally not without side effects and may not relieve other symptoms associated with multimodal cancer treatment, such as sleep disturbance, nausea or pain (Wefel et al, 2004). This is where an alternative solution like meditation comes in. Meditation has no adverse side effects.

Meditation has been widely shown to build a smarter, stronger brain. For example, MRI studies found that the brains of active meditators were larger and contained more gray matter than the brains of non-meditators (Luders et al, 2009). Other UCLA studies found that the normal age-related decline of the brain’s white-matter tissue, which facilitates stronger, faster electrical connections between brain regions, was considerably reduced in regular meditators; in fact, their white-matter fibers were more numerous, more dense and better insulated throughout the their brains (Luders et al, 2011). In other words, long-term meditation thickens the brain (in a good way) and strengthens the connections between brain cells.

More recently, a MRI study of 100 subjects found that long-term meditators (compared too non-meditators) have larger amounts of gyrification (“folding” of the cortex), which allows the brain to process information faster (Luders et al, 2012). Gyrification is the process by which the surface of the brain undergoes changes to create narrow furrows and folds called sulci and gyri. The more folding that occurs, the better the brain becomes at processing information, making decisions, forming memories, etc..

Sahaja meditation helps combat cancer-related impairments such as sustained attention and memory, as well as other critical aspects of cognitive functioning… reasoning ability, learning, planning and organizational ability, creativity, reaction time and efficiency.

Since meditation improves the ability to reduce — and cope with —negative, intrusive thoughts and feelings, cancer survivors are also likely to find that this present-centered awareness improves their perception of their own cognitive functioning.

Other Cancer Side Effects Relieved by Meditation

Fatigue

Researchers have reported clinical levels of fatigue in breast cancer survivors up to 10 years following a diagnosis. This chronic fatigue was associated with greater levels of depression, attention- and memory-related problems, and increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines (e.g., IL-1b, sTNF-RII) (Bower, Ganz, 2002), all of which meditation can address.

Energy rejuvenation is one of the most immediate and universal benefits of meditation, particularly with Sahaja meditation, whose techniques revolve around manipulating the natural inner energy inside each of us. Sahaja’s state of thoughtless awareness, combined with the ongoing nourishment of one’s inner energy through regular meditation, helps keep the mind and body revitalized and rejuvenated. You’ll immediately notice that relieving energy blockages and restoring balance to the inner energy system automatically infuses you with more natural energy and vitality in your day-to-day activities. You can think of the flow of inner energy as quietly and efficiently healing the tiredness inside.

And because Sahaja meditation helps you sleep better, whether through its influence on melatonin or through its ability to balance the inner energy, even the severe fatigue associated with a chronic illness such as cancer can be reduced.

Chronic Pain

Meditation can produce powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain. Several studies have provided neurological evidence that meditation changes how the brain perceives and experiences pain, reducing pain sensitivity and reactivity (e.g., Davidson, 2000; Kabat-Zinn, 1982). In fact, NIH-funded neuroimaging studies found that meditation can produce a greater reduction in pain than even pain-relieving drugs such as morphine. Meditation was found to produce a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness by reducing brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, the area responsible for creating the feeling of where and — how intense — pain is (Zeidan et al, 2011), and increasing brain activity in areas that shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals coming in from the body (such as  the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and orbito-frontal cortex). Meditation was believed to be effective in blocking pain because  it reduced pain at multiple levels of processing, rather than impacting just one area of the brain. (For an in-depth look at how Sahaja meditation relieves pain, see How Meditation Relieves Chronic Pain.

Nausea

Relaxation is the first, most obvious benefit of meditation that practically every meditator experiences. Currently there’s little research to indicate how meditation may relieve radiation and chemotherapy side effects such as nausea and vomiting; however, some studies have shown that even therapies such as relaxation and distraction (e.g, guided imagery) can be effective. In one study, both high- and low-anxiety patients reported less nausea prior to and after chemotherapy treatments. They also had lower blood pressure than control patients who received neither relaxation nor distraction therapies (Vasterling et al, 1993).

Your ability to relax and cope — your coping style — influences how you experience side effects, especially pretreatment anxiety. Anxiety has been shown to be a key factor in causing the anticipatory nausea experienced by some cancer survivors. One study showed that cancer patients with a distraction-oriented or “blunting” coping style experienced less anticipatory anxiety, depression and nausea both during and after chemotherapy while those with a “monitoring” or information-gathering coping style experienced more anticipatory anxiety and nausea both before and during chemotherapy (Lerman, 1990).

A cancer diagnosis can make you feel that you have no control over your life. But key lifestyle changes such as meditation can help you reclaim control, improve your health and restore the belief that life can be “normal” again.

For more information on how meditation boosts the immune system, see: Meditation and Immune System.

How Stress Impacts the Immune System

How Meditation Boosts Immunity, From the Cellular Level Up.

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