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Meditation

People practise meditation to help their minds and bodies become calm and relaxed.

Regular meditation can give clarity, insight, and peace of mind, which may improve your wellbeing and health.

Many people around the world practise meditation. It’s an important part of ancient Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and also some Christian traditions.

But you don’t have to be religious to meditate. With a bit of patience and time, anyone can learn to do it.

Why people with cancer meditate

One of the main reasons people with cancer use meditation is to help them to feel better.

Meditation can reduce anxiety and stress. It might also help control problems such as:

  • pain
  • difficulty sleeping
  • tiredness
  • feeling sick
  • high blood pressure

It can take time to feel the benefits of meditation. At first you might feel more stressed as you see how busy your mind is. But if you keep trying to meditate for even a short time each day, you will find that it gets easier. Gradually you'll feel calmer and less stressed. Regular practice is key.

Types of meditation

There are many different types of meditation. Most types involve being still and quiet. Some involve movement, such as tai chi, chi gong or walking meditation.

Mindfulness means being aware and present in each moment.

Mindfulness meditation can be done while sitting down. You keep gently bringing your attention and awareness back to the present moment whenever you notice that you are daydreaming or distracted.

One way of doing this is to bring awareness to the sensation of breathing, using this as an anchor for the mind to come back to.

Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) is an 8 week programme which teaches mindfulness meditation to help you cope better and be more at ease in your life.

It was developed in the US by a man called Jon Kabat-Zinn. Many hospitals and clinics offer this type of meditation.

MBSR includes:

  • sitting meditation (breath awareness, focused attention)
  • body scanning (awareness of sensations in the body)
  • mindful movement
  • walking meditation
  • insight meditation
  • looking at how our thoughts and emotions affect us, which can help us to respond more effectively to situations

A related type of MBSR is mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

In focused meditation you use an object, such as a flower or candle flame, to bring your attention back to. This can help the mind to focus better, which is an important part of meditation.

In visualisation you create specific images in your mind. You focus your imagination to create pictures or images for a specific reason, such as to relieve symptoms of cancer or help yourself relax.

In guided imagery (or guided visualisation), a voice directs your attention in a specific way to relax you. This could be someone there with you, or a sound recording.

This may involve creating an image of a relaxing scene in your mind. For example, walking through a forest or lying in the cool grass by a beautiful lake.

You don't have to be able to see anything in your mind. Just thinking about the images is enough.

This method involves repeating a specific word or phrase (mantra) that your meditation teacher gives you.

It aims to increase your energy and lower your stress level. It also helps to develop concentration and focus your mind.

In prayerful meditation, the aim is to develop your spirituality. Its meaning will vary according to your religion or views.

In some traditions the aim is to open you up to God or a higher power. In others the aim is to develop positive qualities such as compassion and wisdom.

Some traditions combine meditation with movement to harmonise body and mind. These include tai chi, Qi Gong, walking meditation and yoga.

Research into meditation in cancer care

Over the last 20 years, clinical trials have studied meditation as a way of reducing stress in both the mind and body. Most of the recent research has focused on mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR).

Some studies have shown that MBSR can help to relieve particular symptoms and improve quality of life for people with cancer. It might:

  • improve mood
  • improve concentration
  • reduce depression and anxiety
  • reduce symptoms and side effects, such as feeling sick (nausea)
  • boost the immune system

The studies have generally been small so far, and often have very different study designs which can make it difficult to compare results. So larger studies are needed.

There is no evidence that meditation can help to prevent, treat or cure cancer, or any other disease.

How you practice meditation

What you do depends on the type of meditation you practice.

Meditation can be guided by:

  • people who have training in practicing and teaching meditation
  • doctors and nurses
  • psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals
  • yoga teachers

You can do it yourself at home, but it is best to get a trained meditation teacher to teach you how to do it first. This may only take a few 20 to 30 minute sessions. Or it can take longer depending on the type of meditation.

You can learn some types of meditation in groups, or by listening to or watching meditation tutorials.

Meditation is a process that is refined and developed over months or years. It can sometimes be difficult to keep it up, so it helps to have ongoing support from the person who teaches your meditation.

Most types of meditation involve finding a quiet place away from the distractions of everyday life. You can sit or lie quietly. It’s important to make sure that you feel comfortable but in a position that allows you to pay attention and be aware.

Your teacher will usually encourage you to allow thoughts and feelings to come and go without trying to push them away or stop them. This may seem very difficult to do at first. Most people say it gets easier with practice.

In some types of meditation you say a phrase or word out loud. Or you may have an object you can bring your mind back to, such as a candle or your breath. This helps you to focus your mind on the present moment.

Most teachers recommend that you practice the meditation for at least 15 to 20 minutes twice a day to get the best results. But even 5 minutes once a day is better than nothing, especially if you are feeling ill or finding it hard to concentrate. A shorter period every day is better than a longer time every so often.

Possible harmful effects

Generally, meditation is very safe and side effects are rare. So it is usually safe to use meditation alongside your cancer treatment.

But make sure you talk to your doctor about any complementary therapy or alternative therapy that you want to try so that they can have the full picture about your care and treatment.

People who have any type of mental illness should ask their doctor and a qualified meditation instructor first before they begin any meditation. This is because bringing attention to the present moment may worsen symptoms such as:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • speedy mind (mania) and delusions (psychosis)

When you practice meditation you may see more clearly any anxiety, depressed feelings, or negative thoughts that you have. This can make you feel frightened, sad or disorientated.

It is important to tell your meditation instructor or contact your doctor if you feel anxious after meditating.

How much meditation costs

How much a meditation teacher charges will depend on the type of meditation that they practice and the qualifications they have.

The costs vary from place to place within the UK. For example, sessions may be more expensive in the bigger cities. Group sessions are sometimes cheaper. For example, you can do a meditation and yoga class for between £4 and £12 an hour.

Some meditation centres offer free practice sessions and private discussion with qualified meditation instructors. But, some charge anything between £10 and £60 an hour.

Some cancer clinics and hospitals in the UK offer this therapy free of charge. Ask your nurse or doctor if it is available where you have your treatment. If it isn’t, they may be able to tell you about a voluntary organisation that does, or does so at a low cost.

Many hospitals and clinics give free, 8 week, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) courses. If you go to any private MBSR sessions make sure you are led by a qualified instructor. They can cost anything from £150 to £350.

Finding a meditation teacher

Anyone can call themselves a meditation teacher. But there are specific courses to train people to become experts in guided meditation, visualisation and relaxation techniques. 

Some cancer units have access to people with training in using these techniques. Some health professionals will have had training in this area, such as:

  • nurses
  • doctors
  • psychotherapists
  • psychologists
  • psychiatrists

It is important to make sure you use a qualified meditation teacher. Your doctor or nurse may be able to recommend a reputable one.

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

There are too many meditation organisations and courses in the UK for us to list here. You can find centres or classes close to you by searching the internet and around where you live.

Avoid classes that seem expensive. Many reputable centres provide training sessions free or very cheaply.

We have a list of complementary therapy organisations that you might find helpful. Some of the organisations may list meditation teachers in your local area.

Last reviewed: 
05 Feb 2015
  • Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd edition)
    American Cancer Society, 2009

  • What is the evidence for the use of mindfulness-based interventions in cancer care? A review
    C Shennan and others
    Psychooncology, 2011. Volume 20, Issue 7

  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction and cancer: a meta-analysis
    D Ledesma and H Kumano
    Psychooncology, 2009. Volume 18, Issue 6

  • Randomised controlled trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) for survivors of breast cancer
    CA Lengacher and others
    Psychooncology, 2009. Volume 16, Issue 6

  • Mindfulness meditation for oncology patients: a discussion and critical review
    MJ Ott and others
    Integrative Cancer Therapies, 2006. Volume 5, Issue 2

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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