Cancer treatments can be hard on your body. Fatigue, weakness, hair loss, nausea, and pain are all byproducts of living with this disease.

The toll cancer takes on your emotions is no less serious, but it may not be as easy to spot. Most people have to learn to manage feelings like fear, anxiety, and depression at some point during their journey. That's where mind-body medicine comes in.

This is a form of what doctors call complementary medicine. That means it isn’t the traditional type of medicine you get in a pill or shot. These are practices you do in addition to your regular treatments to help you relax and focus your mind so you can get more control over your emotions and improve your physical health.

How Mind-Body Medicine Works

Life with cancer can be stressful. When your body is under stress, it releases cortisol. This hormone sends blood and nutrients rushing to your brain and muscles so they can react to the threat at hand. Your muscles tense, your breathing quickens, and your heart beats faster. That takes resources away from other important body systems -- including your immune system.

Long-term stress can strengthen the effects of your cancer and treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. Mind-body medicine helps you relax and buffer some of these effects. It can also help you manage your condition better.

What Should I Try?

Meditation: This simple practice has been around for thousands of years. It’s easy -- just sit quietly and breathe deeply. Sometimes you repeat a word or phrase called a mantra. The idea is to gain control over your thoughts and breathing to help you relax.

Even though it’s simple, meditation can do a lot of good for people with cancer. Mindfulness meditation, in which you focus only on the present moment and your breathing, can help ease stress, improve your coping skills, and enhance your well-being.

Deep breathing: This part of meditation also works on its own. Just take a deep breath in from your diaphragm, hold it for a few seconds, and then slowly let it out.

A few minutes each day can help you feel more relaxed. In one study, deep breathing improved quality of life in people with breast cancer who were treated with chemotherapy.

Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique relaxes your entire body, one muscle group at a time. It can help people with cancer manage side effects like:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain
  • Trouble sleeping

It’s also easy to do:

  • Lie down somewhere quiet.
  • Tense then relax each group of muscles.
  • Start with your feet and work your way up your body. Flex and relax your toes, feet, ankles, lower legs, upper legs, belly, chest, fingers, arms, shoulders, neck, and face.
  • By the time you reach your head, you should feel calmer and more at ease.

Guided imagery and visualization: Use them to harness the power of your imagination. Focus on a pleasant scene to steer your mind away from stressful thoughts related to your cancer or your treatments. You can create your own image, use a CD or video to guide you, or work with a therapist.

One 20-minute guided imagery session a day can help:

  • Ease stress and anxiety
  • Slow your heart rate and breathing
  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Boost your immune system to help your body heal more quickly
  • Relieve symptoms of your cancer
  • Manage side effects of treatment

How to do it:

  • Sit or lie down in a quiet room and close your eyes.
  • Breathe in and out deeply.
  • Picture an image that's calming and pleasant, like a lake with mountains in the distance. Use all your senses. Feel the gentle breeze on your face. Smell the flower-scented air. Hear the wind ripple the water. Imagine your stress is a small boat moving away from the shore, and away from you.

Yoga and tai chi: These exercise programs blend deep breathing and relaxation. Yoga combines a series of strengthening, stretching, and balance poses with deep breathing. It can help people with cancer:

  • Ease anxiety, depression, and stress
  • Lessen fatigue
  • Get better sleep
  • Improve their quality of life and emotional well-being

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art. Because it's made up of a series of gentle movements combined with deep breathing, it’s sometimes called "meditation in motion."

People with cancer who take up tai chi might notice:

  • Lower anxiety and stress
  • Less pain
  • Harder-working immune system
  • Higher quality of life

Before You Try These Techniques

Know that while they can be a helpful add-on to your cancer treatment, they aren't meant to replace standard options like chemotherapy and radiation.

Some hospitals and cancer centers offer mind-body medicine programs. Enroll in a class to learn how to practice them correctly. If your hospital doesn't offer one of these programs, ask your doctor for advice on how to get started.

You don't even need to take part in a formal mind-body medicine program to see the benefits. Simply walking outside in nature or listening to music can help you feel better.

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