Meditation and yoga recommended for breast cancer patients

It’s fairly easy to understand the benefits meditation and yoga might have on the minds of those undergoing treatment for and recovering from breast cancer. However, a new medical study has now revealed astonishing results about how these practices and other complementary treatments such as group therapy and stress management can affect the body in a very physical way, even down to cellular level.

Researchers from the Tom Baker Cancer Center at Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary tested 88 women of around the age of 55. All were breast cancer survivors who at the time of the study were suffering considerable emotional issues connected to their experiences. Over the next few months, the participants attended regular meditation and Hatha yoga classes, and were instructed to continue the practice at home, spending a further 45 minutes each day relaxing and getting in tune with their bodies. They also attended weekly group therapy classes and an all-day stress management seminar.

At the beginning and the end of the study, the participants’ blood was analysed to track changes to the telomeres therein. Telomeres are fragments of DNA at the end of cell chromosomes, with the purpose of stabilising and protecting important components. As cells divide and die, and the body ages or fights diseases such as cancer, the telomeres shorten in length. Generally speaking, the longer the telomeres, the healthier the individual. For this project, researchers found longer telomeres even after the relatively short period of the study itself (the mindfulness programme spanned eight weeks, while the group therapy lasted 12 weeks). Their findings were then published in the medical journal, Cancer, on 3 November 2014.

“We have known for a long time that psychological states affect biomarkers in the body,” lead researcher Dr Linda Carlson told The Huffington Post. She explained that depression is associated with both heart disease and inflammation in the immune system, and stress results in the activation of hormones including cortisol, thereby increasing the body’s susceptibility to catching viruses such as the common cold. “How exactly this makes its way specifically down to the telomeres in the cells is currently unknown,” she admitted. “It is a topic of much interest for researchers in this area.”

While this study underlines the physical benefits of regularly taking your mind and body away from the anxiety, depression, stress and fatigue associated with illness, many of the research subjects found their participation to be life changing. Allison McPherson, a breast cancer survivor who took part in the study, was quoted in a press release issued by Alberta Health Services: “I was sceptical at first and thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus, but I now practise mindfulness throughout the day.” McPherson continued to say that this new approach reminds her to be less reactive and kinder toward herself and others on a daily basis.

For more information on how meditation and associated complementary therapies can benefit those suffering from cancer, please visit Cancer Research UK.

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