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Study examines meditation's potential to improve recovery after cancer treatment

Anne Blaes, M.D.

Pat Rudolph had never pegged herself as the meditation type. Yet here she was in a weekly, two-hour mindfulness meditation course with a dozen strangers.

“I’ve never laid still for 20 minutes in my life,” Rudolph thought when she enrolled in a Masonic Cancer Center study looking at the potential of mindfulness-based therapy to ease stress and anxiety in cancer survivors. “And I’m usually uncomfortable in a group. I was the biggest skeptic in the class.”

The study, led by oncologist and Masonic Cancer Center member Anne Blaes, M.D., aims to determine whether mindfulness meditation, combined with reflection and peer support, can quantifiably improve health for patients in the first few months after treatment.

“Patients who’ve gone through cancer treatment have more chronic conditions, more depression and anxiety, more general medical problems,” explains Blaes, an Eastern Star Scholar and Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health Scholar. “Finishing chemo and radiation, they go through this whole new phase. We tell them, ‘Congratulations, you’re done! Come back in three months!’ And there’s a real letdown in terms of anxiety, depression, fear of the unknown.”

For many patients, it’s the first time the diagnosis is truly sinking in, Blaes adds—just as the support network is evaporating.

The anxiety and depression patients face can be intense, even crippling, and often the last thing they want is more medicine, she says. “They come in and ask, ‘What can I do? I don’t want another pill.’”

So Blaes is measuring whether, and to what extent, mindfulness meditation techniques affect depression, anxiety, sleep quality, sexual function, and immune response. It’s part of her ongoing effort to explore the promise of complementary medicine to enhance the healing process for cancer survivors.

The study is supported largely by the Hourglass Fund, founded by cancer survivor and motivational speaker Ruth Bachman to advance research in integrative cancer care.

Study participants attend eight weekly, twohour classes in which they learn mindfulness meditation techniques, practice at home daily, and complete reading and reflection assignments. The course also includes a full-day retreat.

Not long into the course, Rudolph, a breast cancer survivor, began feeling noticeably more relaxed.

“I could sleep better at night,” she says. “This calms you enough to get the rest you really need; you rest more deeply.”

Moreover, the peer support proved invaluable, Rudolph says, and the group still meets regularly. The exercises Rudolph learned also have been “hugely effective” for helping to treat her lymphedema, a common after-effect of breast cancer surgery that causes fluid buildup in the body.

And Rudolph, the skeptic, continues to use the meditation techniques. That’s the intent behind the course, and if the study bears fruit, Blaes hopes to advocate for more widespread, accessible use of mindfulness meditation courses for cancer survivors.

“Survivors know the limitations of Western medicine. I [often] send patients to health psychologists, but I’m not there—and the psychologist isn’t there—when they wake up at 2 in the morning. They need tools they can use at home.”

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