Mind-Body Medicine for Cancer

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Using mind-body techniques can enhance your quality of life, lessen pain, and may extend your longevity, say proponents.

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Cancer is one of the most feared words in the English language. A word that, as one cancer patient put it, is thought of by everybody in "capital letters."

"There are an enormous amount of reactions and emotions associated with having cancer," says Timothy C. Birdsall, ND, vice president of integrative medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Ill. "And many people are uncomfortable dealing with those emotions."

Because a growing body of research has shown that our mind has a powerful effect on our body, it's important to find an appropriate way to "access those emotions, release them, and reap the positive benefits on the immune system," says Birdsall.

That's the theory behind mind-body medicine and an increasingly important part of cancer treatment. Mind-body specialists, however, are quick to point out that mind-body medicine does not guarantee a cure. But it can affect what happens in your body, says Katherine Puckett, LCSW, director of the department of mind-body medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America's Midwestern Regional Medical Center.

"Using mind-body techniques can enhance your quality of life and may extend your longevity," says Puckett. "Having less pain, being more comfortable, that's a huge thing."

Treating the Effects of Chemo

Cancer patients face many challenges, says Dan Johnston, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science for Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Ga. One of them is coping with the stress of treatment. "Whenever we are under stress," says Johnston, "our bodies react with tense muscles, a rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, fast breathing, and a tight belly. We also feel tense, apprehensive, irritated, or frustrated."

When facing new treatment procedures, such as chemotherapy and radiation, stress levels may rise and can then aggravate some of the potential side effects of treatment such as nausea, fatigue, and low energy, says Johnston. "If, however, you approach your treatment procedure in a relaxed state of body and mind, you will lessen the likelihood of such side effects. You will create a sense of control over your situation and your emotional state will be more peaceful."

Examples of mind-body medicine that Katherine Puckett recommends to cancer patients include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery or visualization, meditation, yoga, tai chi, and even listening to music or enjoying nature.

"When you have cancer, or when a loved one has cancer, you have a lost sense of control," Puckett says. "By doing whatever you can to take care of yourself, you're gaining back some control." Many mind-body techniques, such as deep breathing, visualization, and meditation, can be done by individuals on their own. "When you have the tools to do some of these things by yourself, it's very empowering," says Puckett.

Using mind-body techniques does not necessarily mean having to be "positive" all the time, Puckett say. "It's important to make room for all the feelings you're having. It's important to cry as well as to laugh."

Encouraging the Practice

Other conventional medical institutions also see the value of mind-body medicine for their cancer patients and are offering it as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapies. Five years ago, Jupiter Medical Center in Jupiter, Fla., opened its Mind-Body Institute. According to medical director Mark Gocke, MD, the hospital wanted to provide complementary care in a hospital setting to patients who wanted to use such therapies in conjunction with conventional care. Patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, and even those recovering from surgery, can take advantage of various complementary options such as acupuncture (recommended by the National Institutes of Health as a safe and often effective treatment for chemo-related nausea), music therapy, nutritional classes, massage, stress reduction, hypnotherapy and psychotherapy, Reiki, acupressure, and deep-tissue massage.

"You don't want to ignore any modality that can help, whether conventional or complementary," says Gocke. But, he cautions, complementary therapies are not a replacement for conventional treatment. "If stress-reduction techniques allow you to tolerate chemotherapy better, you're enhancing that treatment. Even if it's just a fraction, that's better than nothing at all."

At the Swedish Cancer Institute in Seattle, staff members, as well as cancer patients and their families, are encouraged to take advantage of mind-body therapies. "The staff faces tremendous challenges," says John D. Wynn, MD, medical director for psycho-oncology at Swedish and clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "The more we can support our staff, the more we can inspire our patients."

Wynn, who says he's a "great believer" in hope and resilience, recommends that people with cancer remain "attuned" to themselves. "You need a continuity of self through the cancer experience," he says.

"What did you like to do before you had cancer?" Wynn asks. To the extent that you can, continue doing what you enjoyed. "This is a valid part of your treatment."

Explore what you enjoy and feel good doing, says Katherine Puckett. Try to make time every day to do those things. "Even just 10 minutes a day can have positive physical effects."

The Spiritual Connection

Don't neglect the spiritual aspect of your healing either, says Frederick Smith, MD, senior associate chief of the division of general internal medicine at North Shore University Hospital/Manhasset in New York. Smith believes so strongly in the connection between spirituality and health that he established a course for medical residents on religion in medicine; as part of that course, the residents accompanied Smith on visits to churches, synagogues, mosques, and Buddhist temples.

"When you see the basic goodness and reverence of people in prayer, you can't help but be affected," says Smith, who adds that he is not advocating that health-care providers try to persuade their patients with cancer to become religious if they haven't been before. "What is important, though, is that we be sensitive to any spiritual needs our patients may have. Sometimes spiritual suffering might be even more painful than the patient's physical suffering."

Finally, don't be confused or overwhelmed by the variety of treatments that come under the heading of mind-body medicine. There is no one recommended mind-body technique. "There is an array of therapies because there is an array of patients," says Wynn.

Published Oct. 27, 2003.

SOURCES: Timothy C. Birdsall, ND, vice president of integrative medicine, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Zion, Ill. Katherine Puckett, LCSW, director, department of mind-body medicine, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Zion, Ill. Dan Johnston, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, Mercer University School of Medicine, Macon, Ga. Mark Gocke, MD, medical director, Jupiter Medical Center, Jupiter, Fla. John Wynn, MD, medical director, psycho-oncology program, Swedish Cancer Institute, Seattle. Frederick Smith, MD, senior associate chief, division of general internal medicine, North Shore University Hospital/Manhasset, New York.

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