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Mindfulness Can Help Cancer Patients Manage Anxiety, Study Shows

Cancer patient outside holding coffee cup and looking at the sunrise.

 

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Key Takeaways

  • Anxiety is common in cancer patients and reduces their quality of life, but traditional treatments for anxiety aren’t always comfortable or affordable for people with cancer.
  • A recent review of research shows that mindfulness-based interventions reduce anxiety and depression in adult cancer patients for up to 6 months after treatment.
  • More research is needed to see if mindfulness-based therapy could help children with cancer, or if the positive effects could last longer than 6 months.

According to a new review by researchers at the University of Manitoba, cancer patients might benefit from using mindfulness to manage anxiety.

Anxiety is common in people undergoing cancer treatment. As many as 19% of adults with cancer experience clinical levels of anxiety. The rate is even higher in children, with up to 27% experiencing anxiety.

The findings of the review conducted by the Canadian researchers, which were published in Original Investigation on August 7, revealed that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) reduced anxiety and depression in adult cancer patients for up to six months after treatment.

Although no children were included in the studies, the findings of the review provide a promising framework for future research on treating cancer-related anxiety.

Cancer-Related Anxiety

Anxiety can reduce a cancer patient's quality of life and can also reduce adherence to treatment. Traditional treatment for cancer-related anxiety includes medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, medications aren’t a preferred option for many patients, and behavioral therapy can be expensive and have long waitlists.

Some healthcare providers are turning to complementary therapies, including mindfulness-based treatment, to provide cancer patients with more accessible and affordable ways to manage their anxiety.

What This Means For You

Traditional anxiety treatments are not always a good fit for people with cancer and their loved ones. Mindfulness-based treatment might be a more accessible and affordable option.

How Mindfulness Works

Mindfulness is a technique that helps a person focus their attention on the present moment, allowing them to become aware of their feelings, thoughts, and sensations in a non-judgmental way.

Anxiety is often a projection of future worries or past emotions. Mindfulness helps a person reign in distressing, anxiety-causing emotions, and has also been shown to induce greater calmness, relaxation, and psychological stability.

Sapna Oberoi, MD

Mindfulness can be learned or practiced at home even with mobile apps or virtual programs at any time.

— Sapna Oberoi, MD

One advantage of mindfulness over traditional anxiety treatment is that it does not require an expert's input to work. “Mindfulness can be learned or practiced at home even with mobile apps or virtual programs at any time, with or without the help of trained personnel,” Sapna Oberoi, MD, lead author of the University of Manitoba review paper, tells Verywell.

Mindfulness is often achieved through breath work and by repeating phrases called mantras that help center the mind.

Mindfulness and Cancer Anxiety

The University of Manitoba researchers analyzed 28 randomized clinical trials that involved 3053 adults with cancer. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) were the preferred forms of MBIs in the trials.

The results of the review showed that mindfulness reduced anxiety and depression and improved the health-related quality of life in cancer patients. However, these results were only observed in the short-term and medium-term (up to six months); no benefits were observed in the long-term.

Oberoi says that doesn’t mean that MBIs aren’t effective.

“We don’t have enough patients to say that it doesn’t work long-term,” Oberoi says. He adds that the participants might forget the skills they learned over time if they are not reinforced. “As it is a skill-based intervention, booster sessions might be necessary to maintain the mindfulness techniques learned.”

More studies are needed to determine how helpful mindfulness could be in different populations (such as children) as well as its effectiveness over longer periods.

Can Mindfulness Benefit Loved Ones?

Fear and anxiety associated with cancer aren’t limited to patients—close friends and family members often share these feelings. While not intentional, the emotions of those around them can negatively affect a person who has been diagnosed with cancer.

Kathrin Milbury, PhD

There is definitely a reason to believe that mindfulness may be an effective self-care strategy for family caregivers.

According to Kathrin Milbury, PhD, associate professor of Behavioral Science at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, mindfulness can also help a cancer patient's loved ones with coping.

“Although there are significantly fewer studies focusing on family members, there is definitely a reason to believe that mindfulness may be an effective self-care strategy for family caregivers,” Milbury tells Verywell.

Other Ways to Reduce Anxiety

In addition to major anxiety treatment, there are also plenty of activities people can pursue in their daily life to reduce anxiety and depression. Milbury suggests regular physical activity, such as walking, jogging, running, and biking for about 150 minutes per week.

Some people also find journaling helpful. Expressive writing has been shown to be especially helpful for cancer patients with anxiety.

Milbury also emphasizes the importance of having a support system. “Patients with a strong social network and those who use faith-based coping also tend to do better,” she says.

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