The words, “You have cancer,” forever change one’s life. Even when the chances of cure or long-term remission are high, there is often questioning that takes place. Why me? What caused the cancer? What could I have done to prevent it? Will it come back? Is this new ache the cancer coming back or getting worse? Will the tests come back normal? Will I live long enough to see my children or grandchildren graduate from school or get married?
Family members of cancer patients may also wonder and worry: Will my loved one be okay and live a long time? Will we be able to handle challenges that we may face? This kind of wondering and questioning, for both cancer patients and family members, is normal. However it may be overwhelming and escalate to an unremitting sense of unease and anxiety.
Chronic psychological stress, the kind that goes on for many months or years, can certainly take its toll on a person’s wellbeing and overall health. Worrying interferes with our ability to fully enjoy life and also puts us at risk for illness. When we are stressed, our bodies produce chemical substances called stress hormones that are helpful and protective in the short run. Over time, though, chemical imbalances in our body develop and can lead to inflammation, suppressed or abnormal immune function, impaired metabolism, and cardiovascular problems.
People with cancer and their loved ones can use relatively simple approaches, like mindfulness meditation, to cope with the uncertainties and challenges associated with cancer. Much research over the last 20 years has documented psychological and physical health benefits of mindfulness training for stressed persons and for patients with various health conditions. Emory researchers are involved in research in this area including studies with cancer patients and family caregivers.
Mindfulness meditation involves deliberately paying attention to one’s experience in the present moment with a sense of openness and gentleness. Oftentimes the breath is used as an anchor and neutral point of focus. So often we are caught up in our thoughts such as regrets or stories about the past or planning or worrying about the future that we fail to fully experience the reality of our present experience.
Mindfulness can be done anywhere and anytime, and can take just a minute or two. Of course, the more you practice it the more it will be cultivated and become part of you. An easy suggestion to practice mindfulness is STOP: S=Stop and slow down; T=Take a few slow deep breaths, noticing the sensations of your inhale with your chest and belly expanding and then the release as you exhale; O=Observe thoughts, emotions and body sensations; P=Proceed with awareness and curiosity.
Susan Bauer-Wu, PhD, RN, is an associate professor at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and a faculty member of Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. She also is a Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar.