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Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program Improves Quality of Life for Diagnosed Women

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A small study found that the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Breast Cancer program improved the physical and emotional health of women who had been treated for early-stage breast cancer.

The study was published online on May 31, 2016 by the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Read the abstract of “Examination of Broad Symptom Improvement Resulting From Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Breast Cancer Survivors: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”

A breast cancer diagnosis can bring out so many difficult emotions -- fear, anger, resentment, hopelessness, and more. It’s a big challenge to learn how to cope with these feelings, along with the stress of deciding on treatments. When you’re done with treatment, you may still feel some of the same emotions, or you might be depressed or anxious if you have treatment side effects or lingering pain. So doctors have been studying ways to help women work through these emotions and improve their quality of life.

This study included 299 women age 21 or older who had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and had completed treatment from 2 weeks to 2 years before the study started, though some of the women were still taking hormonal therapy.

At the beginning of the study, the researchers measured a number of physical and emotional health factors, including:

  • pain (frequency and severity)
  • fatigue
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • stress
  • fear of recurrence
  • quality of life

Then the women were randomly assigned to one of two groups:

  • the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Breast Cancer program (152 women)
  • usual care, which consisted of standard post-treatment clinic visits (147 women)

Women in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Breast Cancer program attended a 2-hour class once a week for 6 weeks that was taught by a clinical psychologist trained in the program. The women also received training manuals and CDs to guide their mindfulness practice. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Breast Cancer program was adapted from an 8-week program developed in part by Jon Kabat-Zinn to address the specific needs, concerns, and symptoms of women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. The program teaches participants about four meditative techniques:

  • sitting meditation
  • walking meditation
  • body scan
  • gentle Hatha yoga

and also helps people understand and overcome barriers to meditation. The program also includes educational materials and instruction on how to incorporate mindfulness into daily activities. As homework, the women in the program were told to practice mindfulness meditation 15 to 45 minutes per day, as well as keep a diary about their physical and emotional well-being.

The physical and emotional factors were measured again at 6 weeks and 12 weeks after the study started.

The women in each group had similar characteristics:

  • about 70% were white, 11% were Black, and 10% were Hispanic
  • about 63% were married
  • about 43% had graduated from college
  • about 25% worked full-time outside the home, about 12% worked part-time, and about 26% were retired
  • about 45% had lumpectomy plus radiation and about 53% had mastectomy
  • between 12% and 14% had chemotherapy
  • between 52% and 60% took hormonal therapy
  • between 23% and 25% took pain medicines
  • between 9% and 14% took an antidepressant

The results showed that women in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Breast Cancer group had improvement in a number of symptoms compared to women in the usual care group, including:

  • anxiety
  • fear of recurrence
  • fear of recurrence problems
  • fatigue

These differences were statistically significant, which means there were likely because of the difference in the programs and not just due to chance.

Women in the mindfulness program also had an improvement in depression and quality of life, but these differences weren’t statistically significant.

The largest improvements came during the first 6 weeks of the program and most of the improvements continued at 12 weeks.

Women who had the most stress before the study started benefited the most from the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction for Breast Cancer program.

The results of this study echo results from other small studies showing that mindfulness-based meditation can help ease the stress, anxiety, fear, and depression that often come along with a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

If you would like to start a mindfulness meditation program but aren’t sure how to start, the Meditation page in the Complementary and Holistic Medicine section can help guide you, as well as give you tips on important things to consider before trying meditation.

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