Can I use meditation as part of my treatment?

I’m sure this is one of the odd questions people never consider to ask, but how can meditation be beneficial to your cancer treatment. Well, let’s first start by understanding the concept of meditation.

In short, meditation is a practice used to free the mind of cluttered thoughts. It also focuses on achieving a relaxed mental and physical state. It’s simple if you take the time. Anyone can learn the techniques with proper guidance and teaching.

There are several types of meditation:

CONCENTRATIVE MEDITATION uses an object of focus such as breathing or a sound to help clear the mind.

MINDFULNESS MEDITATION teaches us to be unconditionally present, no matter what is happening around us.

TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION involves deep physical relaxation while maintaining a highly alert mind.

Through meditation, the brain switches from resting brain waves (called alpha waves) to relaxing brain waves (called theta waves). This switch is thought to release endorphins (natural painkillers), slow breathing and heart rate, decrease blood pressure and impact on metabolism.

There are no known safety concerns. Meditation has been safely used in research and there is no known reason to expect any harmful side effects.

In the East, meditation has traditionally been a spiritual choice, appealing to people who want to reach a higher state of consciousness.

In the West, because we are on a constant quest for physical results, we look for measurable effects on blood pressure, heart rate and stress related symptoms. We are now at a point where your doctor may recommend this practice as part of a holistic treatment strategy.

NOW THE SCIENCE

A Harvard University study1 as far back as 2011 showed that after just eight weeks of meditation – about 27 minutes per day – we can significantly alter our brains and rebuild our grey matter! Also, changes in the amygdala have been reported. This area in the brain, is responsible for processing fear, anxiety and stress. Meditation makes this area get smaller!

Numerous other studies have also shown benefits:

  • Improved attention and concentration.
  • With cigarette smokers -Those using meditation as part of their quitting programme showed higher rates of success.
  • Even more exciting, is a study published in the journal Cancer in 20142: This study found that meditation can affect our genetic makeup. This study was performed on breast cancer patients.
Let me provide the background….

Each normal human being will have 46 chromosomes. This makes us genetically unique. At the end of each chromosome is a section of DNA called a telomere, which simplistically, is like a cap that protects the chromosome from unravelling. Telomeres get shorter as we age and as we survive incredible emotional and/or physical stressors like breast cancer. Longer telomeres are generally thought to help protect us from disease and help us live longer, healthier lives.

So, how does this tie in with the publication in cancer?

Scientists wanted to examine the effects of meditation on the genes of breast cancer survivors: What they found was very interesting… In breast cancer survivors who had completed their treatment, daily mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga practice of about 45 minutes a day, was associated with the maintenance of telomere length. This was in direct contrast to the group of survivors not exposed to meditation and yoga. In this group, telomeres shortened.

While it is currently not known if the benefits will be long term, the findings are encouraging.

WE MAY BE ABLE TO INFLUENCE OUR GENETICS

For the guys: specifically, with prostate cancer, a recent US study3 found that stress is not just an emotional side effect of diagnosis, it can also reduce the effectiveness of prostate cancer drugs and accelerate the growth of prostate cancer. This is where meditation would be a useful add-on to an existing treatment plan.

Introducing meditation into your life will mark the beginning of a major lifestyle change. A unique commitment.

Getting started

The best way to get started is to either join a meditation class in your area or to go online.

HERE ARE SOME USEFUL TIPS TO GET YOU STARTED:
  • Find a convenient time that works for you – around sunrise or sunset is a good time – nature is transitioning. Start with just 10 minutes. The aim is to eventually get to 30 – 60 minutes.
  • Find a peaceful and relaxing place where you will not be disturbed. SWITCH OFF YOUR PHONES AND DEVICES.
  • Find a comfortable position. Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed and eyes closed throughout the session.
  • Avoid a heavy meal before you start. Don’t be starving either.
  • Start breathing: deeply in and out. Concentrate on the rhythm of your breathing. Don’t attempt to clear your mind of all thoughts. This may not be possible. Just let the thoughts enter and wander through. Don’t dwell on them.
  • At the end of the meditation, take time to gradually become aware of yourself and your surroundings. Take some time to sit quietly.

For a guided meditation check out this YouTube link: I found it useful! 

References:

  1. http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/01/eight-weeks-to-a-better-brain/
  2. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.29063/full        
  3.  http://www.jci.org/articles/view/63324 

MEET THE EXPERT

Dr Sumayya Ebrahim is a gynaecologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She is also a blogger. Check out her blog “vaginations by Dr E” on www.vaginations.co.za

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