MU study finds breast cancer survivors benefit from meditation

Thursday, January 12, 2012 | 6:48 p.m. CST; updated 7:04 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 12, 2012

COLUMBIA — Breast cancer survivor Kay Smith was running in overdrive. She described herself as overstressed, overworked and running on empty during and after radiation treatment. 

She heard about a study called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction that was being run at MU and decided to participate. 

The eight-to-10 week program aimed to improve the lives of breast cancer patients with a routine that consisted of breathing sessions, yoga and Tai Chi exercises. Participants were also told to focus on their positive and negative thoughts to learn to manage their stress level.

"The cancer experience is stressful for patients, and as they complete treatment and become cancer survivors, they often seek ways to manage and eliminate stress, which contributes to an improved quality of life," said Bob Stewart, one of the researchers.

Smith said the study helped her concentrate on her thoughts.

"The class allowed me to be aware of who I am and where my life is going," Smith said. 

Smith said her health improved because she learned how to slow down, listen to her body and mind and not over-commit herself. Doctors noticed a change in her blood pressure.

"It helped me mentally, physically and spiritually," she said.

Smith said four other participants she talked to felt less stressed as well.

"When we felt slow and not well, we could sit still and just breathe," Smith said. "It helped me begin my day with a positive attitude."

Smith said she would likely participate in the program again because it was important for her to learn to take each moment as it came and to slow down and be aware of her life.

Before the study, Smith did not attend support groups, but after being a part of the study she offered to talk with people that wanted to seek help and tell them about the opportunities it offered.

"It's important for people to know there is a lot of vital information to live a better life after breast cancer," Smith said.

Jane Armer, professor of nursing at MU, worked with Yaowarat Matchim, former doctoral student, and Stewart, professor emeritus of education and adjunct faculty in nursing, to study health improvement for breast cancer survivors after they participated in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

"It helps the patient learn to maintain a flexible balance with their stress reduction," Armer said.

Matchim tested the meditation on healthy, non-cancer patients in Missouri and Thailand before she conducted the study.

The 32 participants were all breast cancer survivors who had completed their active treatment less than three months before the program and were diagnosed with stage 0, 1, or 2 breast cancer, which are less-advanced stages. Fifteen participants received the stress-reduction treatment and 17 were in the control group.

A control group is a group not receiving the intervention, Armer said. This allows the researchers to better understand if the intervention itself had the effect on the group undergoing treatment or if some outside factor contributed to changes.

Stewart said this study was different because it used a control group, which many other breast cancer studies do not.

Armer said the study had both a baseline, pre-intervention, measurement and a longer follow-up time than many other studies. This allowed researchers to look at the longer-term effects of the intervention and make comparisons with the measures recorded before the intervention was carried out.

Researchers also used cortisol levels as a physiological measure and physical measure of blood pressure, pulse, respiration, to psychosocial measures, Armer said.

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes.

Armer said the cancer itself is managed by rigorous treatment protocols. While this intervention may reduce stress and help manage symptoms during treatment, it does not in any way replace cancer treatment.

"It is an important intervention to reduce stress and improve quality of life and has implications in years of survivorship, after the active cancer treatment ends," Armer said.

Matchim is currently working in Thailand on a meditation training project and a therapeutic prayer project for chronic patients.

In Missouri, Armer said plans are being made for the next step in survivorship.

"We've had positive success and users that wanted to keep up with the course," Armerc said. "We are focused on what people have learned and their benefits overtime. There is interesting work left to be done."

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