Mindfulness-Based Therapy Helps Ease Pain After Breast Cancer Treatment

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A small Danish study has found that a specific type of counseling therapy, called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, can help ease the pain that many women continue to have months and years after breast cancer treatment is completed.

The research was published online on June 20, 2016 by the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Read the abstract of “Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy on Late Post-Treatment Pain in Women Treated for Primary Breast Cancer: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”

The study included 129 women who had been treated for breast cancer between 2 and 3 years earlier:

  • about half the women had mastectomy and half had lumpectomy
  • about half the women had axillary lymph node surgery
  • 17% of the women had breast reconstruction
  • 60% of the women were treated with chemotherapy
  • 79% of the women were treated with radiation therapy
  • 73% of the women were treated with hormonal therapy
  • almost all the women said they were experiencing moderate to severe pain related to breast cancer or breast cancer treatment

The women were randomly split into two groups:

  • one group completed an 8-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program in groups of 13 to 17 women that included weekly meditation exercises, gentle yoga, cognitive exercises, and mindfulness exercises, and focused on the women’s pain experiences; the women were encouraged to practice mindfulness meditation for 45 minutes each day at home (67 women)
  • the other group (62 women) were told they were on the waiting list for the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program

Before the study started, the researchers asked the women about:

  • the type of pain they were having
  • the intensity of the pain
  • the frequency of the pain
  • their quality of life
  • whether they took pain medicines and how often
  • their level of stress and anxiety

The researchers asked the women the same questions after the 8-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program ended, 3 months after the program ended, and 6 months after the program ended.

The researchers found that the women in the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program had less severe pain than women in the wait-list group right after the program ended, as well as 3 months and 6 months after the program ended. This difference was statistically significant, which means it was likely because of the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program and not just due to chance.

The women in the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program also had better quality of life and used less pain medicine than the women in the wait-list group. These differences also were statistically significant.

“One out of every five patients with breast cancer continues to experience pain even several years after ending treatment, and persistent pain generally seems to be difficult to treat effectively pharmacologically,” the researchers wrote. “Our results suggest that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could be an efficacious treatment option for women treated for breast cancer with late post-treatment pain.”

While this study was small, the results are very encouraging and suggest that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may be a good choice for women who are struggling with pain after breast cancer treatment.

If you’re having pain because of breast cancer, you may want to talk to your doctor about this study. Ask your doctor if mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is right for your unique situation. You also may want to ask someone on your medical team about what’s available at your hospital or treatment center.

In the Breastcancer.org Complementary & Holistic Medicine pages, you can learn about 16 therapies, including guided imagery, hypnosis, and progressive muscle relaxation. You can read about:

  • what to expect
  • how to find a qualified practitioner
  • important things to consider before trying a technique


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