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  health > cancer > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Meditation may add support during cancer treatment

October 1, 1999
Web posted at: 9:44 AM EDT (1344 GMT)

In this story:

Complementing medicine, not replacing it

The value of connection

Therapy or quackery?


By Kim Wallace

(WebMD) -- It might not seem like Pat Fobair has a lot to smile about. First diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, the 64-year-old Northern Californian is now fighting the deadly disease a second time. But she's excited because she recently completed her chemotherapy treatment and can now muster the energy to attend a weekly meditation class.

"I'm not looking to meditation as a cure for my cancer, but I am looking at it as a way to relax myself and to help me handle anxiety," says Fobair, a clinical social worker at Stanford University Medical Center's radiation oncology department.

Fobair shares her interest in the unconventional with a growing number of patients. According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, more than 6 percent of Americans in 1996 had some form of unconventional therapy such as meditation, acupuncture and biofeedback in addition to conventional medical care. The researchers found that practitioner-based unconventional therapies serve more as a complement to conventional medicine than as an alternative.

Barrie Cassileth, M.D., a member of the American Cancer Society's committee on alternative and complementary therapies, sees value in both conventional and complementary treatments. Therapies like meditation are an extension of what has always been called supportive care, she says.

"But this is science -- the fact is that there are no data that show that meditation has any direct effect on disease," she adds. "However, it does have measurable physiologic effects: It can slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure and relax muscles."

Complementing medicine, not replacing it

The meditation class Fobair attends is presented through the UCSF/Stanford Complementary Medicine Clinic at the Stanford University Medical Center, which offers patients a number of alternative health-care approaches -- including biofeedback, acupuncture and hypnosis -- in conjunction with conventional medicine.

Mark Abramson, a Redwood City, California, dentist and longtime meditation advocate, teaches the class. His meditation groups are open to everyone, but he's worked with dozens of cancer patients during his five years of teaching.

"I've definitely seen meditation support the healing process," says Abramson, who completed an intensive training course in meditation at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center's Stress Reduction Clinic.

Abramson believes the emotional stress that cancer patients face can impact the way their bodies handle the disease. He teaches "mindfulness meditation," which he explains as "a way of paying attention to yourself, a way of being objective about life."

In a recent class, about 20 people sat in a circle. Abramson's voice, gently reminding them to focus on breathing and releasing muscular tension, guided them into a state of deep relaxation. An hour later, Abramson led the group in a series of stretches, yoga postures and tai chi movements. The three-hour class ended with participants sharing stories about how meditation is affecting their outlook on life.

The value of connection

Dr. David Spiegel, medical director of the UCSF/Stanford Clinic, says that Fobair's decision to augment conventional health care with an alternative treatment is indicative of a trend he's been studying for decades. Spiegel's landmark 10-year study of women with terminal cancer, published in the medical journal Lancet in 1989, showed that patients who participated in a specialized support group survived an average of 18 months longer than those who relied on chemotherapy alone.

"If no one wants to talk to you about the fact that you're dying, you feel very isolated," Spiegel says. "That's one of the powers of a group."

Spiegel says that in his support groups, the primary focus is to talk openly about life and death, and that "Abramson's working method is to give yourself permission to talk about whatever you need to." Although Spiegel doesn't recommend support groups or meditation as a cure for cancer, he believes these types of open communication and support may influence patients' adherence to conventional medical treatment, and could therefore have an indirect effect on the outcome of their disease.

Therapy or quackery?

Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist and the administrator of the consumer-advocacy Web site Quackwatch, sees things a bit differently. He worries that cancer patients who flock to meditation classes may be wasting valuable time on therapy that has no proven benefit.

"You can affect anxiety level, and you can affect symptoms -- some symptoms are stress-related, and they're going to be worse when you're under stress," Barrett says. "But as far as having an influence on the course of disease, there's no evidence of that whatsoever."

Abramson says that he knows meditation can't cure cancer and doesn't claim that it does. "What we teach people is how to understand what's going on in their minds that's creating reactivity in their bodies," he says.

Fobair has long understood the essence of Abramson's teachings. "Anything I can do to keep myself in a calm inner state is going to help my body feel healthier," she says.

Copyright 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

What You Need to Know About Choosing an Alternative Cancer Therapy
Emotions and Cancer: What Do We Really Know?

UCSF/Stanford Health Care
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
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