Meditation | Cancer Research UK
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What meditation is

There are many different types of 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 throughout the world practise meditation. It’s a very 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. It is a very popular and useful type of complementary therapy.

As with other complementary therapies, one of the main reasons people with cancer use meditation is to help them to feel better. Meditation can reduce anxiety and stress and help control problems such as

  • Pain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tiredness
  • Feeling sick
  • High blood pressure

It can take time to feel the benefits of meditation and at first you may feel that you are getting 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 and gradually you will feel calmer and less stressed. Regular practice is the key thing.


Types of meditation

There are many different types of meditation. Most involve being still and quiet, but some involve movement, such as tai chi, chi gong or walking meditation. The different types can be divided into groups.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness means being aware and present in each moment. Mindfulness meditation practice can be done while sitting. 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)

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

Focused meditation

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. There is detailed information about visualisation in this section.

Guided imagery or guided visualisation 

A teacher, CD or sound file directs your attention in a specific way. A voice guides your imagination with the aim of relaxing you. This may involve creating an image of a scene in your mind, such as walking through a forest or on a beach, or lying in the cool grass by a beautiful lake. You don't have to be able to create a visual image (to "see" anything). Just thinking about the images is enough.

Transcendental meditation

This method involves repeating a specific word or phrase (mantra) given to you by the transcendental meditation teacher. It aims to increase your energy and lower your stress level. It also helps to develop concentration and focus your mind.

Prayerful meditation

In prayerful meditation, the aim is to develop your spirituality. The meaning of the meditation 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.

Meditation and movement

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. The trials have shown that meditation can help to reduce anxiety, depression, tiredness, stress, chronic pain and sleep problems. It can also help to lower blood pressure and reduce menopausal symptoms. 

Some scientific evidence shows that meditation can help to relieve particular symptoms and improve quality of life for people with cancer. Research has shown that it can

  • Improve your mood
  • Improve your ability to concentrate
  • Reduce severe depression and anxiety (studies have looked at mindfulness based stress reduction)
  • Boost the immune system

But there is no evidence to suggest that meditation can help to prevent, treat or cure your cancer or any other disease. For more information look at our page about why people with cancer use complementary therapies.

A controlled study published in 2000 looked at 90 cancer patients who did mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) meditation for 7 weeks. They found that people who meditated had 31% lower stress symptoms and 67% less mood disturbance than people who did not meditate.

In June 2005 a review looked at the research evidence about using meditation in cancer care. The reviewers found that when practiced alongside cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, mindfulness meditation may help people with cancer to feel more positive and optimistic. It may also help to reduce some side effects and symptoms such as anxiety and feeling sick. You can read the report into meditation for people with cancer on the Research Council for Complementary Medicine (RCCM) website.

A study in the Netherlands in 2008 found that cancer patients who practiced MBSR were very satisfied with the training. They said that it gave them a better quality of life, more joy in life, less tension, and fewer physical symptoms. A year after the training they also reported less depression, anger and mood disturbance. No changes were found in this study for meaning in life and tiredness. The researchers said that MBSR gives patients ways of working with worry and anxiety during and after treatment.

Researchers in Japan in 2009 looked at all the studies carried out into the effect of MBSR on the mental and physical health of people with cancer. 10 studies were included and the researchers found that MBSR may be helpful for cancer patients' mental health and the way they cope with the cancer. But they say that more research is needed to show whether there is an effect on physical health. 

In 2009 an American study looked at mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) for women with early stage breast cancer. It found that the women who practiced MBSR had lower levels of depression, less anxiety and less fear of the cancer coming back. They also had higher energy levels and better physical wellbeing than women who did not practice MBSR.

A study in Canada in 2010 looked at 21 people who had cancer and their partners. It found that for both patients and their partners MBSR could improve mindfulness and reduce stress and mood disturbance.

Researchers carried out a review of trials into mindfulness and cancer care in 2011. It looked at 13 research papers and 4 conference abstracts published since 2007. The studies reported significant improvements in anxiety, depression, stress, sexual difficulties, and immune function. The authors said that the study designs were very different and so it is difficult to compare the results but that mindfulness may have a place in cancer treatment and symptom control.

In 2012 a study in America found that MBSR helped women who had finished breast cancer treatment to have more mindful attention and less distracted thinking. But it did not seem to have an effect on blood pressure in this study.

Another 2012 American study looked at 23 patients having chemotherapy. It found that when they listened at home to audio MBSR CDs they reported better mood and better quality of life.

A UK study in 2012 assessed how well mindfulness based stress reduction worked in women with early stage breast cancer. 229 women took part and they had had surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy for breast cancer. Half the women had an 8 week MBSR program and the other half had  standard care. The researchers found that the women who had MBSR felt better emotionally and physically and had fewer hormone related symptoms than women who had standard care. They said that this study gives evidence that MBSR can help to reduce the long term emotional and physical effects of treatments, including hormone treatments. They recommend MBSR as a support for women having breast cancer treatment.

The clinical trials so far have seemed to show that meditation can help people with cancer. We need more research in this area to find out if there are other ways it can help.


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

Once you have been introduced to a type of meditation practice, you can then 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 sessions of 20 to 30 minutes or can take longer depending on the type of meditation.

You can also learn some types of meditation in groups, or by listening to meditation tapes or CDs. It will help to have ongoing support from the person who teaches your meditation, as it can sometimes be difficult to keep it up. Meditation is a process that is refined and developed over months or years.

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. With practice most people say it gets easier. 

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. 

To get the best results most teachers recommend that you practice the meditation for at least 15 to 20 minutes twice a day. 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 of meditation

Generally, meditation practices are very safe and side effects are rare. But people who have any type of mental illness should ask their doctor and a qualified meditation instructor before they begin any meditation practice. 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. If you feel very anxious after meditating, it is important to tell your meditation instructor or contact your doctor.

It is usually safe to use meditation alongside your cancer treatment. But it is important to talk to your doctor about any complementary therapy or alternative therapy that you want to try. Then they will always have the full picture about your care and treatment.


How much meditation costs

How much a meditation teacher costs depends on the type of meditation they practice and the qualifications they have. Some meditation centres offer free practice sessions and private discussion with qualified meditation instructors. But, some charge anything between £10 and £60 an hour. 

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 cancer clinics and hospitals in the UK offer meditation to patients free of charge. So you can ask your nurse or doctor if this is an option where you have your treatment. Or they may be able to tell you about a nearby voluntary organisation that offers meditation to people with cancer free or at a reduced cost. Some of the organisations listed on our complementary therapy organisations page may be able to give you some advice.

Many hospitals and clinics give free, 8 week, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) courses. If you attend private MBSR make sure that they are led by a qualified instructor. They can cost anything from £150 to £350. You can find out about courses on the Be Mindful website


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 nurses and doctors have training in this area, as well as

  • Psychotherapists
  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists

Some cancer units have access to people with training in using these techniques.

If you want to contact a meditation teacher it is important to make sure they are qualified. Your doctor or nurse may be able to recommend a teacher. Or you can contact the Institute of Complementary Medicine for advice.

Ask the teacher

  • What kind of meditation they practice
  • What the effects of the meditation are
  • If they have had any formal training to teach meditation
  • How long they've been practicing
  • If they have worked with cancer patients before

It is also important to ask if they 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 under meditation and where you live. Do avoid classes that seem expensive. Many reputable centres provide meditation training sessions free or very cheaply.

Some of the general organisations listed on our complementary and alternative therapy organisations page will be able to help you.

You can also contact the

Haven Breast Cancer Support Centres

The Haven provides mindfulness based stress reduction at its centres in London, Hereford and Leeds to people with any type of cancer.

Mindfulness based stress reduction UK
Phone: 01223 750660

This organisation runs courses to teach mindfulness based stress reduction. The site has information about mindfulness and videos to show how it can help to reduce stress.

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Updated: 5 February 2015