Integrative Health Blog

Mindfulness-Based Treatments for Cancer and Other Chronic Illness

Posted by Dr. Charles Gant on Wed, May 15, 2019

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What is Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn[1] defines mindfulness as… “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”  

Several decades ago I had noticed the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions that I taught to cancer patients and to others suffering from serious chronic disorders, and I was happy to see formal publications appear in journals attesting to my clinical observations and efforts.  A meta-analysis[2] of the effects of mindfulness-based studies appeared in the journal Psycho-Oncology: Journal of Psychological, Social and Behavioral Dimensions of Cancer[3] in 2008. 

When Ledesma and Kumano published a meta-analysis over a decade ago, concluding that “The results suggest that MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) may improve cancer patients' psychosocial adjustment to their disease,” I was hopeful that finally Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and other mindfulness-based strategies would be incorporated into mainstream oncology and into healthcare in general. 

The Therapeutic Potential of Mindfulness

Perhaps our healthcare system’s resistance to providing mindfulness-based therapies for all cancer patients and for anyone suffering from a serious, chronic health problem, stems from a belief that mindfulness-based or non-mindfulness based psychosocial support are equally beneficial, so why should there be all this emphasis on mindfulness at all? This is like a person who has never had a romantic encounter asking the question, “Why is there so much hubbub about falling in love?”  After they are finally smitten by falling in love, they no longer ask this silly question. The same is true with mindfulness-based practice or interventions.

However, after investing some time and effort into mindfulness training, either in a psychotherapist’s office or in a meditation center, one realizes that mindfulness-based experiences have an enormous therapeutic potential.  Part of this realization is the discovery that mindfulness is a 5th faculty of human experience, having little to do with the other 4 faculties, sensory awareness, cognition, emotionality or behavior (movement or a kinesthetic faculties).  An integrative and functional medicine physician can’t help wanting to embed mindfulness into their mix of therapeutic tools, once they experience it and know what it is.

Mindfulness-Based Studies and Breast Cancer

Undoubtedly, this occurred to Dr. Linda Carlson et. al. who spearheaded a study[4] to differentiate the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions such as MBCR, or mindfulness-based cancer recovery, from run-of-the-mill psycho-social support for cancer patients. The conclusion of this study is: 

“In the largest trial to date, MBCR was superior for improving stress levels, quality of life, and social support for distressed survivors of breast cancer.”

The next objection I have encountered to incorporating mindfulness-based interventions for cancer or chronic diseases concerns whether or not measurable physical benefits are afforded to their patients as opposed to merely improved coping skills.  Why should any healthcare provider divert their limited time and economic resources to psychological benefits (adding life to the years), when those resources would be better directed at devising treatment plans that add years to life and bring about a physical improvement?  Again, Dr. Carlson appears on the scene, publishing a study[5] in 2015, demonstrating that measurable physical benefits accrue to those cancer patients – telomere length (TL) – who engage in mindfulness-based therapies;

“Group psychosocial interventions including mindfulness-based cancer recovery (MBCR) and supportive-expressive group therapy (SET or non-mindfulness based) can help breast cancer survivors decrease distress and influence cortisol levels. Although telomere length (TL) has been associated with breast cancer prognosis, the impact of these two interventions on TL has not been studied to date. …Psychosocial interventions providing (mindfulness-based) stress reduction and (non-mindfulness-based) emotional support [simultaneously] resulted in trends toward TL (telomere length) maintenance in distressed breast cancer survivors, compared with decreases in usual care.”

Mindfulness Therapies Help Unleash the Power of Now

Now that both mindfulness-based and non-mindfulness-based therapies for cancer patients are being shown to provoke physical improvements, we can expect to see the appearance of many new studies, provided that researchers engage in their own mindfulness experiences to begin to understand its healing implications.  At the very least, acquiring an intellectual grasp of the subject by reading books such as the “Power of Now”[6] should help to inspire interest. 

More importantly, as cancer patients or anyone suffering from a serious chronic disease, gradually abandon their fears of a worrisome future, as well as resentments accrued from our past, and focus on the present, the benefits of authentic spirituality and a sense of timelessness and selflessness are unmistakable. 

After early treatment helps a patient achieve a reasonably functional brain through detoxification and neurotransmitter restoration, the introduction of mindfulness-based therapies can not only add life to our years, but the latest research suggests that they may also add years to our life.

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Related Information:

3 Ways to Practice Mindfulness Every Day


Dr. Gant_functional medicine doctor Wash DCCharles Gant MD, PhD,  is a physician, author and teacher and has practiced Integrative and Functional Medicine for over three decades. He specializes in molecular health and healing, especially as it supports growth and recovery from problems such as ADHD, addictions/substance dependence, chronic diseases, metabolic and immune disorders, infectious disease, and more. He is an expert in interpretation of functional medicine testing to diagnose precisely what is deficient in each patient, and then replenish those missing, essential items. 



[2] A study which summarizes multiple studies on a particular topic to assess trends and reliability of conclusions.

[3] Ledesma D, Kumano H (2008) Mindfulness‐based stress reduction and cancer: a meta‐analysis, Psycho-Oncology:  Journal of Psychological, Social and Behavioral Dimensions of Cancer, 18(6), 571-579.

[4] Carlson, LE, et. al. (2013) Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery Versus Supportive Expressive Group Therapy for Distressed Survivors of Breast Cancer, Journal of Clinical Oncology, 31(25), 3119-3127.

[5] Carlson LE et. al. (2015) Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery and Supportive-Expressive Therapy Maintain Telomere Length Relative to Controls in Distressed Breast Cancer Survivors, Cancer, 121(3), 476-484.




Topics: cancer, mindfulness, Dr. Gant