Integrative Health Blog

Mindfulness Shows Benefits for Cancer Patients

Posted by Dr. Charles Gant on Sat, Oct 03, 2020

mindfulness_cancer_alternative therapy

Recent studies show that mindfulness-based therapies as part of cancer care may improve stress levels, coping skills and quality of life.

What is Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn[1] defines mindfulness as… “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” He sometimes adds, “in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.” I would add that mindfulness is also a separate faculty of consciousness, which is also a clinical, therapeutic tool. This separate faculty is NOT cognitive (thinking), emotional, sensory (5 senses) or behavioral, all of which are faculties that are governed by various brain regions that drives the biological imperative of all life, survival. 

Mindfulness thus “transcends,” suspends or “lets go” of the stressful need to survive, and thus lowers sympathetic, fight/flight stress. Paradoxically when we suspend our stressful need to survive, wellness and health improves, and our chances of survival are improved as well. Recent neuroimagery, cognitive science and neurophysiological studies suggest that approximately 1/6th of our brain, our most highly evolved part, the prefrontal cortex, is the critical region of our brain that confers this separate faculty of mindfulness.[2]

Mindfulness and Cancer Patients

The field of oncology could benefit greatly from incorporating mindfulness training into its regimens. In no other specialty of healthcare does mindfulness have the greatest potential to make such a difference in human suffering, both for patients and their families. For decades I have noticed the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions as an integrative cancer therapy  that I taught my cancer patients and their families, and I was happy to finally see formal publications appear in journals attesting to my clinical observations. A meta-analysis[3] of the effects of mindfulness-based studies appeared in the journal Psycho-Oncology: Journal of Psychological, Social and Behavioral Dimensions of Cancer[4] in 2008, concluding that;

The results suggest that MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) may

improve cancer patients' psychosocial adjustment to their disease.”

Instead of providing a way to help cancer patients cope with this terrible disease using mindfulness, we instead often give them a death sentence or a worrisome prognosis. Fear is caused by processing an imaginary future, sometimes referred to as awfulizing or catastrophizing, but mindfulness, by culturing “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” pokes holes in our illusory future. Relocating one’s focus on life away from a gloomy future to the present, interrupts the autonomic stress about an uncertain future, and thus improve(s) cancer patients' psychosocial adjustment to their disease.”

Perhaps our healthcare system’s resistance to providing mindfulness-based therapies for all cancer patients, also 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? 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. After investing some time and effort into mindfulness training, one realizes that mindfulness opens up a whole new realm of therapeutic possibilities. In fact, since mindfulness is a separate faculty of consciousness, its discovery in oneself is like the discovery of eyesight when one has lived their whole live with their eyes closed. A healthcare provider is compelled to embed mindfulness into their mix of therapeutic tools for cancer, once they experience it and know what it is.

A Study on Mindfulness-based Interventions

Undoubtedly, this occurred to Dr. Linda Carlson et. al. who spearheaded a study[5] to differentiate the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions from run-of-the-mill psychosocial 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 employed by our healthcare system’s failure to providing mindfulness-based interventions for all cancer patients, concerns whether or not measurable physical benefits are afforded to cancer patients as opposed to merely improved coping skills. Why should any healthcare provider divert their limited time and economic resources to psychological benefits, when those resources would be better directed at physically killing tumor cells and improving longevity? Again, Dr. Carlson appears on the scene, publishing another study[6] in 2015, demonstrating that measurable physical benefits accrue to those cancer patients who engage in mindfulness-based therapies;

“Group psychosocial interventions including mindfulness-based cancer recovery

(MBCR) … can help breast cancer survivors decrease distress and influence

cortisol levels. Although telomere length (TL) has been associated with breast

cancer prognosis, …resulted in trends toward TL (telomere length) maintenance

in distressed breast cancer survivors, compared with decreases in usual care.”


Now that mindfulness-based therapies for cancer patients are being shown to not only add life to one’s years but to add years to one’s life, we can expect to see the appearance of many new studies, provided that researchers actually engage in their own mindfulness practices to develop an experiential understanding of mindfulness.


If you are curious, or new to a mindfulness practice, book an appointment with one of our holistic doctors to explore the vast benefits. 


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Dr. Gant functional medicine doctor Wash DCCharles Gant MD, PhD, was a valued physician, author and teacher and practiced Integrative and Functional Medicine for over three decades. He was a valued member of NIHA's team and cherished by his colleagues and patients. Dr. Charles Gant, JR. Obituary



[1] Jon Kabat Zinn is one of the most famous mindfulness teachers in the world.

[2] Gant C (2020) Awaken Your Godly Brain, Liberty Hill Press.

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

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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, mind-body, integrative cancer treatment