Mind – Body Medicine

There is a burgeoning field of science which seeks to understand the close, intimate link between the brain and the rest of the body. For years, what went on in the mind was not necessarily thought to influence health and well-being. Today, we know that there is an amazing network of connection between what goes on in the brain––including our thoughts, emotions, and even what we speak––and our body’s physical health.

For example, we now know that there is an enormous connection between thoughts and emotions and how our digestive system works. It is no coincidence that people who have anxiety are far more likely to have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive problems. We also know that there is a real connection between our thoughts and emotions and our immune system. But what about cancer?

Cancer and the Mind

The conclusion among many prominent researchers in the field is that there are bio-behavioral pathways that can, and do, influence cancer development and progression. In other words, what goes on in the brain plays a role in the development and progression of cancer. A recent study found that in women who had experienced some sort of significant, negative life event, the risk of breast cancer was increased by 1.5 times. Women who had experienced severely striking life events experienced a risk that was two times greater than women who reported no striking life events. The authors concluded that there was a positive correlation between striking life events and the development of breast cancer.

It turns out that our mental and emotional state can positive or negatively impact cancer treatment outcomes as well. A landmark study published about 20 years ago sought to compare two groups of breast cancer patients. The first group received the standard of care only: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. The second group of women were given the standard of care as well, but in addition, they were placed in regular small group sessions. In these sessions, the women were taught stress reduction techniques, such as deep breathing and relaxation. These women were also taught how the immune system works, about how certain immune cells “eat” foreign invaders, such as pathogens or cancer cells. After they were provided information on immune system function, these women were taken through guided imagery, and told to imagine their immune system cells gobbling up the cancer cells, like Pac-Man from the video game.

The results of the study were quite significant. The women in the second group had improved immune system function, less stress, and overall improved quality of life. And they lived longer too.

Using Mind-Body Medicine to Treat Cancer

Harnessing the power of the mind has significant therapeutic implications when fighting cancer. There are a wide variety of tools in our mind-body medicine toolbox, from deep breathing techniques, to prayer and meditation, to Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), to hypnotherapy. Because each patient has some level of stress, failing to provide at least some mind-body therapies for the treatment of cancer would be suboptimal.