8 ways meditation may help during cancer treatment

Meditation may offer one approach to finding relief while navigating cancer-related challenges like these. Meditation may also help you reduce stress, help manage pain, increase energy and improve sleep. Your provider may suggest a meditation practice as part of your integrative care plan.

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cancer, you know firsthand how stressful the experience is. The diagnosis may trigger anxiety and feelings of despair. The uncertainty of your health and the side effects of treatment are often taxing. You may have trouble sleeping and experience physical pain. Your emotions may fluctuate intensely, causing you to feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster.

Meditation may offer one approach to finding relief while navigating cancer-related challenges like these. Meditation may also help you reduce stress, help manage pain, increase energy and improve sleep. Your provider may suggest a meditation practice as part of your integrative care plan.

In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of meditation as a helpful integrative component of your treatment plan. We’ll discuss:

If you’d like to learn more about the behavioral health services we offer cancer patients, or if you’d like  a second opinion on your cancer diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.


What is meditation?

Meditation is a practice that dates back as far as 5000 BCE. It’s thought to have originated in India, and it’s been integrated into multiple religious and spiritual traditions around the world. Today, meditation has been heavily researched in medical and mental health settings and has been implemented as an integrative approach to help manage side effects of the cancer and its treatment as part of the mind-body approach to health care.

Meditation practice has been shown to calm the mind and body, increase awareness and focus attention. The human mind may ruminate about the past or worry about the future, which can lead to stress. Meditation helps bring the mind to the present moment, which can help to free us from stressful memories or worries that are outside of our control. In the present moment we can practice clarity, perspective, and compassion.

There are many types of meditation, including:

  • Mindfulness meditation focuses on acceptance, bringing attention and awareness to your sensations, emotions and thoughts, especially to the present moment.
  • Transcendental meditation repeats a word or phrase as an anchor for your attention. This phrase may be something you choose or one suggested by a teacher.
  • Movement meditation may consist of Tai Chi, Qi Gong or walking. During movement meditation, your awareness is anchored in the intentional movements of your body.
  • Loving-kindness meditation focuses on intentional thoughts of love, support and well-being sent out to specific people or groups of people. You may send loving kindness to your loved ones, to those suffering with illness or to those you wish to forgive.

While the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says research into mindfulness meditation has been “difficult to analyze and may have been interpreted too optimistically,” it does suggest that the practice may help people “manage anxiety, stress, depression, pain, or symptoms related to withdrawal from nicotine, alcohol, or opioids.”

How to meditate

During a meditation session, you’ll observe your thoughts, emotions and sensations in your body as though watching from a birds-eye view. You’ll not try to change your experience. Instead, experts advise taking a curious approach to your experience, bringing awareness to both pleasant and unpleasant states of being. By noticing these experiences, you tend to create a pause between your emotion and reaction. In this pause are perspectives and options you may not have otherwise noticed.

When you notice muscle tension or other stresses, you’re urged to curiously explore the tension rather than resist it. Through the experience, you’re meant to become an observer of your mind and body, recognizing the way your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations interact. Once you've curiously explored your discomfort, you’ll be guided to bring gentle permission to the body and/or mind to relax the tension.

How to practice meditation

There are a variety of ways to practice mindfulness meditation. You can engage in guided meditation, relaxation practice, or deep breathing.

The formal practice of mindfulness includes these steps:

  • Sit with your eyes closed and follow your breath.
  • Notice how your breath becomes an anchor that allows you to continuously ground your attention.
  • Bring awareness to what breathing feels like in your body: the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen, the sensation of the air entering and exiting your nostrils or mouth.
  • When your mind wanders to thoughts and emotions, take notice.
  • Acknowledge that you just had a thought or emotion, and then gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Other types of mindfulness meditation may use different anchors of focus. For example, you may:

  • Close your eyes and focus on the sounds around you.
  • Engage in a walking meditation, which has you focus your attention on each step you take.
  • Visually orient your attention to focus on specific colors in your environment.
  • Engage in a body scan, noticing certain types of sensations of clothing, furniture, temperature, as well as internal states of the body such as pain, stress, tension, relaxation or relief.
  • Practice mindful awareness in regular daily activities such as eating, showering or doing chores.

“I often encourage people to go through their five senses after they have grounded themselves,” says Alexandria Callahan, a Behavioral Health provider at City of Hope Chicago. “Look around the room, pay attention to what you see, the sounds or noises you hear, distinct smells and what you feel—your temperature or the way clothes are draped on the body, a breeze if you are outside.”


What does the research say about meditation and cancer?

Researchers have studied the health benefits of meditation through clinical trials that review both short-term and long-term outcomes in cancer patients.

1. Mindfulness meditation reduces stress, anxiety and depression

Mindfulness practice supports psychological health. Studies have shown it may increase the grey matter in the brain, a part of the brain involved in decision-making and self-control. As a result, mindfulness tends to help you slow down automatic reactions and generate a pause in your experience. This pause may allow you to make choices about a situation, such as selecting a specific course of action or choosing your perspective.

As a result, mindfulness may help reduce stress and increase your sense of self-control. With less stress, you may feel more at ease with your anxiety and depression. Many who practice mindfulness report feeling calmer amid chaos, less impulsive and better able to control emotional regulation, enhancing their quality of life.

2. Mindfulness meditation helps improve sleep

Cancer patients commonly experience fatigue and sleep disturbances. You may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or you may have restless sleep. You may also struggle with insomnia, making it difficult to stay alert and focused during daytime hours without other interventions. Researchers have found that those who practice mindfulness-based stress reduction experience increased duration and quality of sleep.

Experts believe that mindfulness helps sleep by reducing rumination, generating impartial emotions toward stimulating circumstances and reducing emotional dysregulation.

3. Mindfulness meditation improves immune function

Research on women with breast cancer has shown that a regular practice of mindfulness may be beneficial to the immune system. For example, those who participated in the mindfulness control group in a study examining the impact of mindfulness on the immune system showed that T-cells (a central cell involved in immune function) were more readily activated and showed more rapid recovery.

4. Mindfulness meditation supports the grief process

Receiving a cancer diagnosis often triggers feelings of grief. You may find that you experience existential grief, wondering how to find meaning in your new reality. You may experience a torrent of painful emotions, which are a natural part of the grief process. Mindfulness meditation may provide a means to experience your grief with compassion. By developing an observing mind, which is central to mindfulness, you may discover ways to experience distressing emotions without pushing the emotions away, denying them or being overwhelmed by them.

5. Mindfulness meditation may help reduce pain

Twenty percent to 50 percent of cancer patients report feeling pain. In those with advanced-stage cancer, 80 percent report moderate to severe pain. In a randomized controlled study of women with breast cancer, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was shown to have a significant and durable effect on pain reduction compared to those on a waitlist for the treatment.

Meditation is designed to lessen pain by reducing stress. When you feel pain, the body’s natural response is to tense around the pain. Over time, the tension itself may increase the pain. Mindfulness is designed to help you notice your experience carefully while practicing gentle prompts to relax the tension around the pain.

6. Mindfulness may increase clarity and concentration

In addition to the stress of having cancer, patients typically find that undergoing treatment is taxing on the body and mind. At times, it may be hard to concentrate. It’s especially important to think as clearly as possible when speaking with doctors and family, and when making decisions about your health.

Mindfulness may help in these situations by increasing concentration and clarity. When studied under an MRI, meditators showed activation in their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in decision-making, clear thinking, and reasoning. Activating this part of the brain helps reduce stress and strengthen the sense of self-control.

7. Mindfulness meditation may boost energy

A core symptom of cancer is fatigue. This results from cancer itself, the body fighting cancer, the impact of cancer treatment and the associated stress. Feelings of fatigue may be overwhelming at times, and mindfulness meditation may help boost energy.

For example, when you're anxious and stressed, the body releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, causing a fight-or-flight response. This may make it harder to sleep, leading to feelings of exhaustion. Both factors may lower your immune response. On the flip side, reducing stress, enhancing sleep and supporting the immune system may contribute to increased energy. When you’re in a state of calm, the body doesn’t have to work so hard. Practicing mindfulness may help decrease heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol levels.

8. Practicing meditation in a group may lead to social connection

Many cancer treatment programs offer a mindfulness group as part of an integrative care plan. Attending these groups helps to connect you to other patients in similar circumstances who may provide empathy and compassion. Social support may be especially helpful when struggling with a challenging diagnosis.

How meditation may complement cancer treatment

Meditation is a common component of an integrative care plan that includes complementary therapies and alternative therapies, provided as a side effect-management approach in addition to cancer treatment, not as a replacement for it. Meditation is typically free and has many benefits. To learn more about incorporating meditation into an oncology treatment plan, speak with a member of your cancer care team.

If you’d like to learn more about the behavioral health services we offer cancer patients, or if you’d like a second opinion on your cancer diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.