From diagnosis through survivorship: Mindfulness can help people cope with cancer

Research has shown mindful meditation can reduce stress, relieve pain.
Shiori Lange, LCSW
Shiori Lange, LCSW

A disconcerting loss of identity can develop after a cancer diagnosis, according to Shiori Lange, LCSW, a UCLA Health clinical oncology social worker.

With seemingly endless medical appointments, the person becomes a patient. The disease can feel defining and dominating as minds and bodies experience anxious thoughts or side effects from treatment.

But taking a deep and mindful breath and focusing only on the moment can be a powerful way to cope.

Each week, Lange, a clinician at the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, leads a mindfulness meditation group offered by the center. Research has shown that breathing and guided visualization can provide a number of benefits for people with cancer.

“My goal is to provide a comfortable space where individuals can practice mindfulness as a tool to keep the sense of self and determine what’s important to them,” Lange said.

The secular practice of mindfulness meditation calls for developing acceptance and self-compassion by paying attention in the present moment. Practitioners observe thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations with curiosity and without judgment.

The practice can result in stress reduction, pain relief and better quality of sleep for people with cancer, Lange said.

Group members have also reported more tranquility and higher self-esteem even as they cope with a diagnosis or treatment.

“With mindfulness, individuals can create their own empty space where they can foster peace, strength and empower themselves from within to navigate the journey,” she said.

Mindfulness in health care

Lange, who lived in Japan until she was 18, learned about the practice of mindfulness as a child from a local Buddhist monk. Although the roots are spiritual, mindfulness meditation was introduced to American health care settings in the late 1970s.

The benefits have been well documented in the years since.

Research led by UCLA Health, published in 2021 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that six weeks of mindfulness meditation practice reduced depression symptoms in breast cancer survivors.

Another study found that people with cancer who engaged in five minutes of mindful breathing, three times per day, reported a significant reduction in stress compared to a control group. The research, published in 2021 in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, noted that the practice cost nothing and could easily be done from anywhere.

Lange teaches a mindfulness visualization technique called “Leaves on the Stream,” a practice used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to cope with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. People start by identifying thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Next, they mentally write them on leaves. Finally, people visualize placing the leaves on a stream and watch the water carry them away.

The exercise can be centering and freeing. Lange said when people engage in gentle observation and awareness, they can decide what to let go of and how they want to respond to other thoughts and feelings effectively.

“We are usually doing something,” Lange said. “But mindfulness is an innate state of being, an embodiment of authenticity where we embrace our essence. We just be who we are.”

A therapeutic practice

The Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology was established in 1994 to provide holistic care to people with cancer from the time of diagnosis through survivorship. Services include counseling, support groups, nutrition, integrative medicine and spiritual support. 

The mindfulness meditation group started 13 years ago, with Lange taking over the helm in May after joining the center. Participants meet on Thursday mornings for an hour and 15 minutes over Zoom. They range in age from their 20s to 90s. The program is free.

“That group is open for anybody newly diagnosed, to during treatment, to post-treatment and survivorship,” Lange said. “A group practice enhances the connection. It’s very therapeutic.”

She leads the group in breathing and meditation exercises before offering participants the chance to talk about their practice and what’s going on in their lives.

“The common denominator is cancer, but individuals exchange not only experiences, but also profound insights, cultivating a collective wisdom and mutual empowerment,” she said.

The practice of mindfulness can be particularly beneficial in meeting the challenges faced by individuals with cancer, which may include anxiety, trouble sleeping, pain or side effects from treatment such as nausea or fatigue.

“We talk about applying different mindfulness tools,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the breath meditation. Sometimes it’s the self-compassion. Depending on the situation, individuals can pick and choose the different kinds of mindfulness meditation practice.”

Healing the trauma of diagnosis

A body scan meditation focuses on checking in and noticing how each part of the body feels. It has the benefit of decreasing pain and anxiety and improving sleep.

Lange said individuals dealing with cancer may wake up in the middle of the night with anxious thoughts.

“Frequently, individuals find themselves ruminating on repetitive thoughts, a pattern that proves unproductive, and fostering anxiety and self-blame,” Lange said.

Lange said taking time for mindfulness can help heal some of the trauma that can come with an unexpected diagnosis.

A lovingkindness meditation focuses on sending thoughts of love and support to oneself and then to loved ones, people in general, the community group, and the world at large.

“Upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, individuals are often confronted with a profound and startling revelation, forced to shift in their understanding of health and well-being,” she said. “A lot of appointments come one right after another and people don’t have time to process their cancer journey.”

Still others may find that mindfulness meditation can help them relax or fall asleep during a chemotherapy infusion.

“The mindfulness practice could be like a mental massage to relax and release the emotional or physical tension they’re holding,” she said.

A mindful approach of bringing attention to the present moment can also be applied to routine activities that have nothing to do with cancer. For instance, Lange will take a series of deep breaths at a red light instead of thinking about traffic.

“You could be practicing mindfulness by mindful eating, paying attention to every bite you bring to your mouth,” she said. “There’s mindful walking or mindful movement like tai chi and Qigong.”

Lange said not every method will work for every person.

“I ask people to get rid of expectations,” she said. “Mindfulness is not going to resolve everything.”

Regular practice, though, is important.

“We don’t have to do traditional seated meditation for 30 minutes, we can start with 60 seconds,” she said. “Individuals have the capacity to navigate their life journey not merely as cancer patients but as their authentic selves, embracing a narrative of resilience and strength.”

Courtney Perkes is the author of this article.

Take the Next Step

Anyone interested in participating in the group can request a referral from their doctor or contact the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology.