Mind Over Cancer: Reducing Stress with Compassion Meditation

March 1, 2017

A cancer survivor responds to stress in various detrimental ways: There are psychological problems such as anxiety and depression as well as physical issues such as high blood pressure, increased heart rate and elevated blood sugar levels. All those factors contribute to a lower quality of life for people already dealing with a debilitating health issue. But the mind may have a key to helping ease those woes.

Compassion meditation is a centuries-old practice meant to improve emotional and physical well-being, but thanks to recent scientific inquiry into integrative therapies it may find its way into contemporary cancer survivorship healing programs. University of Arizona College of Nursing Assistant Professor Thaddeus Pace, Ph.D., intends to apply a specific compassion meditation technique called CBCT® (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training) to see if it eases psychological and biological stress-related responses in patients coping with cancer and their home caregivers alike.

“MDS Manager allows users to track their own lab results, bone marrow results, transfusions, treatments and any symptoms they may be having." ~ Sandy Kurtin, UA Nursing PhD Student

Dubbed ‘Compassion Meditation,’ in previous studies, Pace’s chosen therapy has already proven effective in dampening the body’s response to stress in healthy young adults. “We’ve taken initial work on how compassion meditation may be good for modifying stress activation and have already examined indicators of its stress-reduction effect in foster care children with trauma histories,” said Pace, who theorizes that the therapy may also prove useful in the cancer survivorship arena. “The biological underpinnings of the quality of life impairments that happen in cancer survivors likely involve similar stress components.”

Thaddeus Wesley Warren Pace, PhD

Created by Pace’s colleague at Emory University, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Ph.D., CBCT® is derived from the ancient Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Lojong, a mind-training discipline that emphasizes mental calmness in difficult situations. “We have a sense that this compassion meditation program may have some beneficial impact on systemic inflammation,” said Pace. “Inflammation is highly implicated in the quality of life impairments that people experience after primary cancer treatments. Poorer quality of life also affects those surrounding cancer survivors, which is why we’re extending this work to involve not just cancer survivors but also their close, supportive caregivers as well.”

Thanks to research led by College of Nursing Professor Terry Badger and College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Professor Chris Segrin, it is evident that a complex social bonding occurs between cancer survivors and their home caregivers (family or close others). Studies involving prostate and breast cancer survivors have revealed that when the patient’s mood was down, their caregiver’s mood tended to be down, and vice versa. Based on this interplay, Pace plans to offer the multi-week compassion meditation program to both parties, promoting more tranquil moods in tough social situations, and also sustaining a calmer overall outlook. “If we boost one or both, they both really rise together dramatically,” said Pace.

He hopes that a new study underway in his laboratory will build solid scientific evidence to back up this integrative wellness strategy for breast cancer survivors and their close family members and friends. Participants will learn how to adapt their mind-body state by attending instructor-guided meditation sessions with expectations to also practice at home. Observed changes in depression, anxiety, stress and social interactions will provide insights into the body’s mental and physical responses to the therapy as well as how to improve them.

“If we showed broad effectiveness of this program we could work to have compassion meditation as a therapy available in every major cancer center,” Pace said. “People’s lives change because of cancer treatments. They can knock back cancer but they can’t always escape the sledgehammer effects cancer has on brain functions like cognition and behavior. Long-term, people arrive at a new normal which is often subpar. The goal in survivorship intervention work is to arrive at a new normal that’s optimal for good quality of life.”