Kimberly Lowe, PhD, has spent her entire 20-year career as a cancer researcher trying to improve diagnostics and quality of care for people with cancer. She is also the founder of Empower You, which offers mind-body tools specifically for those affected by cancer, including yoga, meditation, nutrition, guided self-massage, guided energy medicine, and art classes. View Dr. Lowe’s disclosures.
Meditation is becoming a more common part of cancer treatment, recovery, and survivorship, and for good reason. Meditation is a free resource to support people with cancer and has many meaningful benefits that can help them navigate the challenges of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. However, despite the incredible benefits of meditation, there’s one big problem: People often think meditation is more mystical than it is, and they often don’t stick with it because they have unrealistic expectations of what they need to do to be “good” at it.
You may think you need to sit in stillness and complete silence for long periods of time for meditation to make a difference in your life. But this isn’t the case. And, if you’re managing the responsibilities of a house, career, family, bills, and now a cancer diagnosis, that just isn’t realistic. Here’s what to know about getting started with meditation and how meditation can help you during cancer.
What is meditation?
Meditation is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “the act of giving your attention to only one thing, either as a religious activity or as a way of becoming calm and relaxed.” I’ve heard people describe it as “the place where I find my center,” “where I go to get calm,” “my happy place,” and “falling back within myself.”
Meditation is a practice of working with your mind to expand the peace you experience in life. Meditation is not daydreaming or trying to control your mind. Rather, it is a way of gaining awareness of your thoughts and naturally allowing a state of peace to comfort you.
Eckhart Tolle, the spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, says, “One conscious breath in and out is a meditation.” Meditation comes in many shapes and forms, and finding the way of meditation that works for you is the best way to set yourself up for success.
What are the benefits of meditation?
Meditation can calm your body and mind and help you learn how to engage the “relaxation response,” which is vitally important at all stages of your cancer experience. The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's response when it is relaxed or resting. This allows your body and mind to relax and repair. Through regular meditation, you will become more familiar with feeling calm, and it will be easier to achieve that state during times of high stress, such as when you need treatments or are undergoing scans.
Meditation has also been shown in clinical studies to reduce stress, pain, depression, anxiety, and increase emotional balance, focus, creativity, and memory. These are critically important for everyone affected by cancer, including people with cancer, survivors, and caregivers.
How can I get started with meditation?
Wherever you are on your cancer journey—whether you are newly diagnosed, in treatment, in recovery, or a survivor—here are some tips for starting on your path of meditation.
1: Make yourself physically comfortable.
Most meditation teachers will tell you that the ideal meditation positions are sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your spine straight or sitting cross-legged on the floor with your spine straight. Unfortunately, these are generally not comfortable positions for many people, including those with cancer, which can make it challenging to stick with your meditation practice.
Instead, I suggest letting yourself recline or even lay down. Allow your body to be fully supported. You may enjoy the meditation more, and you’ll find a more profound sense of relaxation if your body feels good. If you find this causes you to fall asleep, try meditating at a different time of day. Or, better yet, let yourself enjoy a nice nap! Sleep is an essential part of your recovery, too.
2: Start small.
If meditation is new to you since your cancer diagnosis, start by setting your timer for just 1 minute. Sit, breathe, and relax for 1 minute. Do that for a few days, and then increase it to 3 minutes. Then, you can increase it to 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and so on. It’s all about baby steps. If slowing down in this way makes you feel anxious, try putting the palm of your hand on your forehead and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly for at least 5 breaths.
Remember that a 5-minute meditation every day is better than a 30-minute meditation once a week. Celebrate your successes, 1 minute at a time!
3: Create a dedicated place for meditation.
Humans are creatures of habit, and we often connect positive or negative feelings with specific places, scents, and sounds. Doing something repeatedly in the same place, at the same time, or with similar sensory stimulants helps us fall more quickly into alignment with the purpose of that activity.
For these reasons, I strongly suggest setting up a dedicated place for your meditation practice. It can be as simple as one side of your couch, a corner of your office, or even a whole room dedicated to your health and wellness. Whatever the location is, it needs to be a calm, quiet, and comfortable place you enjoy. Perhaps light a candle or play soft music to help cue your body that it’s time to meditate and relax. Meditating at the same time each day or as part of a daily sequence—such as getting your pajamas on, brushing your teeth, and then meditating—can help your body know what to expect.
4: Have realistic expectations.
Be realistic when you first sit down to quiet your mind during your meditation practice. It’s normal and even expected for your mind to be flooded with thoughts and worries when you finally have some quiet time. For most people, it’s almost as if sitting down in the quiet invites random thoughts to invade their minds. This is called “monkey mind,” and it happens to everyone.
You can set yourself up for success by knowing these invasive thoughts are coming. Allow your thoughts to come into your mind and then leave, like passing clouds in the sky. By not attaching to them or judging them, you will get more skilled at allowing your mind to feel more relaxed. This takes practice and can be incredibly challenging after a cancer diagnosis because this may be an unknown territory in your life. This is even more reason to be accepting and non-judgmental of yourself and to stick with your daily meditation practice. Some days will be better than others, and that’s perfectly OK.
Regardless of how, where, or when you meditate, finding a pattern that works for you is the key to success. A few minutes every day will lead to positive results and will likely encourage you to meditate for longer next time. If it feels hard for you one day or you fall asleep, don’t let that discourage you from trying again the next day or the day after. With a little bit of practice, your timer will be going off before you’re ready to stop.