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Mindfulness Meditation, Survivorship Classes Ease Depression in Younger Women Treated for Breast Cancer

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Mindfulness meditation and survivorship education classes eased symptoms of depression in younger women treated for breast cancer, according to a study. Mindfulness meditation also helped ease fatigue and sleep problems.

The research was presented on Dec. 9, 2020, at the 2020 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. Read the abstract of “Targeting depressive symptoms in younger breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation and survivorship education.”

The results were presented by Patricia Ganz, M.D., associate director for population science research at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and distinguished professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, as well as professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Ganz also is a member of the Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board.

Listen to a Breastcancer.org podcast episode on the study with Ganz.

About the study
What this means for you

About the study

“For women in their 30s and 40s, the experience with breast cancer and its treatments is substantially different from that of older women,” said Ganz. “These women often require more aggressive therapy that can be both disruptive and disfiguring, which can cause high levels of distress, putting them at an increased risk for the negative effects of cancer diagnosis and treatment. Yet, little research has been done on strategies to reduce the depression and manage the stress of this younger population.”

So Ganz and her colleagues looked at two strategies that earlier studies had suggested could help ease the symptoms of depression, fatigue, and stress in people diagnosed with breast cancer.

The study included 247 women age 50 or younger when they were diagnosed with stage 0 to stage III breast cancer. The women had completed their primary breast cancer treatment 6 months to 5 years before being part of the study. All the women reported at least mild symptoms of depression.

On average, the women were about 45.5 years old and had been diagnosed 2.6 years earlier.

The women were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  • The mindfulness program, a 6-week program developed by the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA that taught the women how to use mindfulness to work with difficult thoughts and emotions, manage pain, and cultivate loving kindness.
  • The survivorship education program, a 6-week program that covered topics including quality of life and medical management after breast cancer treatment, relationships and work-life balance, sexual health, and exercise.
  • A wait-list group, who did nothing for the 6 weeks of the study, but then could take either the mindfulness program or the survivorship education program after the study was completed.

Both the mindfulness program and the survivorship education program were tailored to younger women who had gone through breast cancer treatment.

The women completed detailed questionnaires about depression, fatigue, stress, and anxiety and had blood drawn four times to screen for markers of inflammation:

  • just before the study started
  • at the end of the 6-week programs
  • 3 months after the programs ended
  • 6 months after the programs ended

Compared to women in the wait-list group, women in the mindfulness program and women in the survivorship education program were less depressed immediately after the 6 weeks. This difference was statistically significant, which means that it was likely due to the programs and not just because of chance.

The effects of the mindfulness program lasted longer than the effects of the survivorship education program. Women in this group continued to be less depressed 3 and 6 months after the program ended. More than 50% of the women in this group were considered clinically depressed before the mindfulness program. During the follow-up period, this number was 30%.

The women in the mindfulness program also had decreases in sleeping problems, hot flashes, and the severity of their fatigue.

Women in the survivorship education program continued to be less depressed 3 months after the program ended, but this effect wasn’t seen 6 months after the program ended. The survivorship education program also didn’t seem to help sleeping problems, hot flashes, or fatigue.

“Younger breast cancer survivors are in need of targeted, effective programs to help manage stress, depression, and other residual side effects of diagnosis and treatment,” said co-author Julienne Bower, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry/biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, in a statement. “We are excited to have two new options to offer these survivors, and particularly the mindfulness program which is available online and can be accessed by women across the country.”

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What this means for you

The results of this study are encouraging and echo the results of earlier small studies suggesting that mindfulness meditation can help ease the depression, stress, and fatigue that can come after a breast cancer diagnosis.

If you’d like to start a mindfulness meditation program but aren’t sure how to start, ask someone on your medical team about what’s available at your hospital or treatment center. You also may want to look at some online videos by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an internationally known meditation teacher and professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In addition, many programs, including the UCLA program used in this study, are available online.

For more information, visit the Breastcancer.org page on Meditation.

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Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

Reviewed by: Brian Wojciechowski, M.D., medical adviser


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