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Relieving the emotional and physical toll of breast cancer through mind-body practices

Breast cancer treatment affects more than just your body. It can take an incredible toll on your emotional well-being as well. You likely have a ton of anxiety about your treatments, and how it will affect your life moving forward. If you’re a mom, you’ve got to worry about how this will affect your kids and your family. A demanding job or the needed income is another added level of stress that can make a huge impact. Add all of this to the physical symptoms of treatment, like joint pain, it’s an understatement to say that it’s hard.

Mind-body practices are complementary therapies that can offer relief of some of the emotional and physical effects that cancer can have on a person. They use physical techniques to help connect your mind with your body. They can help you manage stress and anxiety and have been known to reduce pain or physical symptoms from cancer and treatment. Mind-body therapies can’t (and shouldn’t) replace your traditional treatments for your cancer, but they can certainly help improve your well-being and quality of life during and after treatment has ended.

We’re breaking down some of the most common mind-body therapies used to complement cancer treatments.

Disclaimer: As always, we recommend speaking with your healthcare team about the risks and benefits of any complementary therapy before you start using them so that you get the most benefit with the least risk.

Yoga

The practice of yoga has deep roots in Indian culture dating back thousands of years. Traditional, authentic yoga is a way of life, incorporating spiritual and nutritional principles into daily life. Today, in Western society, yoga focuses mostly on a series of poses and breathing exercises. Studies have shown that yoga can have positive outcomes both physically and emotionally on cancer patients and survivors.  

Benefits: It can reduce anxiety, depression and make you feel more relaxed. It can also improve your strength and mobility helping joint pain and can be a good source of regular exercise.

Risks: If you have bone metastases, some poses, and more rigorous forms of yoga may be more harmful than good as it could cause fractures. Some forms of yoga, like hot yoga, should also be avoided if you have lymphedema or are at risk of developing lymphedema. Whether you are regularly active or not, knowing your limits while practicing yoga is key for getting the most out of this mind-body therapy. The great thing about yoga is that your instructor can show you how to modify most poses to ensure you don’t overdo it.

Touch Therapies

Reiki and Therapeutic Touch are forms of mind-body therapies that focus on balancing a person’s energy through the hands. In Reiki, a form of Japanese medicine, a practitioner will place their hands either just above or gently on the body in a series of positions for a few minutes at a time. Therapeutic Touch is a modern form of touch therapy where practitioners use sweeping hand motions on or just above the body.

Benefits: Those who use touch therapy say that it can have deep relaxation benefits and reduce stress or anxiety. Others say it can help reduce pain, improve sleep and ease muscle tension.  In essence, touch therapy is said to help improve a person’s overall well-being.

Risks: Touch therapy is generally safe for people living with cancer and shouldn’t interfere with your regular treatments. Sometimes people may feel headaches or tiredness after sessions.

Meditation

There are many different forms of meditation, and many of the complementary therapies we talk about incorporate meditation in some form. But the overall premise of meditation is to calm and clear your mind of external stressors and focus entirely on your present state of being. It can be done through breathing exercises, focusing on specific objects or focusing on a word or phrase. It can be associated with prayer or movement like yoga.

Benefits: Meditation is generally known to help relieve you of physical and mental stress and improve your overall well-being. For breast cancer patients, it’s been shown to help manage many symptoms and side effects and reduce the fear of recurrence.  It can help with insomnia, high blood pressure, and nausea.

Risks: Meditation should have no harmful effects and shouldn’t interfere with regular treatment. Meditation could have similar risks as yoga if you’re practicing through movement. It could also have negative effects if you are vulnerable to or suffer from any depressive mental illnesses.

Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy puts a person into a trance-like state of deep relaxation while leaving the mind active and responsive. You often hear hypnosis used for treating traumatic events or to overcome fears, but it can also be used to help reduce and cope with the many side effects of cancer and treatment. It can block out external distractions and provide clarity to thoughts or feelings that a person may naturally try to avoid when conscious. 

Benefits: It can reduce pain, nausea, anxiety, insomnia or fatigue. It can also help people feel more control over situations in which they have no control, like cancer.

Risks: There is a lot we still don’t know about hypnotherapy but if you use a qualified hypnotherapist it should be safe. This form of therapy should not be used if you suffer from psychosis or seizures.  

Generally, complementary therapies are not covered by the public healthcare system, so you may have to pay out of pocket. Some private insurance plans may cover some of these so be sure to check with your provider.

Overall, mind-body therapies are natural holistic ways to reduce stress and anxiety that lead to a general improvement in a person’s well-being. The added potential benefits of relieving physical pain, insomnia or fatigue will also improve your quality of life.

Photo by Dane Wetton on Unsplash