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Mind-Body Medicine for Cancer

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

WebMD Feature

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."

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