Mindfulness meditation and group therapy protect cells of breast cancer survivors

Study uncovers new evidence of a mind-body connection

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The Independent Online

Mindfulness meditation, yoga and group therapy have a positive physical impact within the cells of distressed breast cancer survivors, a new study has revealed.

Certain protective and stabilising components of chromosomes, known as telomeres, remain intact in survivors who practise meditation and yoga or attend support group meetings, whereas telomere length decreases for those who don’t receive such help. This new finding provides support for the theory that the workings of the mind impact on physical wellbeing.

"We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology," says Dr Linda E. Carlson, director of research at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, Canada, and lead author of the study.

The shortening of telomeres is known to be connected to DNA damage or cell death, and has been linked to earlier mortality in patients suffering from a variety of diseases, including breast cancer. More recently, research has indicated that psychological stress impacts on telomere length; suggesting that interventions which decrease stress may have positive physical effects on a cellular level.

In an attempt to examine this possibility, Dr Carlson and her team recruited 88 breast cancer survivors who were experiencing a significant level of distress. These women were divided into one of three groups; those who followed an eight-week mindfulness-based treatment programme, those who attended eight weekly group therapy sessions, and a control group who participated in a single stress management seminar.

The mindfulness programme consisted of meditation instruction and Hatha yoga exercises aimed at cultivating non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. The group therapy focused on encouraging openness and emotional expression, and was designed to help build the patients’ social support systems.

The researchers believe that their findings demonstrate the potential for stress-reducing measures to positively influence the outcome of serious diseases.

For some of the research subjects, participating in the group interventions has already been “life-changing”. In a press release issued by Alberta Health Services, breast cancer survivor Allison McPherson shares her experience of the mindfulness programme.

"I was sceptical at first and thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus, but I now practise mindfulness throughout the day and it's reminded me to become less reactive and kinder toward myself and others," she says.

The results of this study were published on the third of November in the journal 'Cancer'.

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