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Breast Cancer Survivors Use Mindfulness To Lower Stress

By January 30, 2012

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Meditation in Pink
Meditation in Pink
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At my breast cancer support group, the leader always used a meditation or guided visualization to help us relax into the moment and become more present at the group. All of us had early stage breast cancer, and had been diagnosed within the last year, so you can imagine how high our stress levels were! Most of us were holding down jobs and caring for families when we were diagnosed - cancer was an unwelcome item on our list of worries and fears.

Research done at the University of Missouri confirms that our group leader was on the right track. Jane Armer, a member of the faculty on Nursing led a study on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and its impact on breast cancer survivors. "MBSR is another tool to enhance the lives of breast cancer survivors," Armer said. "Patients often are given a variety of options to reduce stress, but they should choose what works for them according to their lifestyles and belief systems."

Two groups participated in the study - 19 women used Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and 17 did not. The MBSR group were tested and found to have lower blood pressure, heart rates, and respiratory rates than the other group. The research measured the participants' cortisol levels and found that stress was reduced in the MBSR group. MBSR has been shown to reduce physical pain and boost immune function, as well as improve mood by lowering anxiety, anger, and confusion.

All of the women in this study had been diagnosed and treated for early stage breast cancer. They had not taken medication for high blood pressure nor had they done meditation in the year prior to the study.  Women in the MBSR group met for 8 weeks to practice breathing exercises, gentle yoga, body awareness, and meditation. Each week the participants agreed to practice MBSR techniques for 45 minutes daily, on their own, though not all of them were compliant. During week six, they met for a full day retreat. All participants were evaluated before the study began, and the end of the 8-week program, and one month after it was completed.

Most of these women benefitted from the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction practices while they were in the program and doing their daily practice. However, when they were re-evaluated one month after the program ended, their benefits had begun to fade away. Once out of the structure of the group setting, they stopped doing MBSR on their own and did not join a formal meditation group that would have encouraged them to do regular Mindfulness practices. The researchers compared their study results with larger studies and found that when breast cancer survivors continue to use mindfulness meditation, their stress levels are lower. Transcendental meditation was found to yield similar stress-reducing effects.

Jane Armer's team thinks that the study would merit further research, especially if done with a larger group of newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, with a longer follow-up period and a different schedule for measuring cortisol levels. Yaowarat Matchim, a recent doctoral graduate at University of Missouri who worked on the study said, "I hope this research will be beneficial for other people, especially cancer patients."

Source: Matchim, Y., Armer, J.M., and Stewart, Bob R. (2010). Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on Health Among Breast Cancer Survivors. West J Nurs Res Nov 15, 2011 .

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