Sitting comfortably, closing your eyes and focusing on breathing could soon be part of treatment at Georgia Regents University Cancer Center.
The cancer center is looking to add meditation, yoga, Tai Chi and other nontraditional therapies as part of its clinical treatments to further the overall well-being of patients, families and staff, GRU officials said. The idea is to not only offer them but also to devise research trials that could define their effects, said Dr. Olivier Rixe, medical director for the cancer center.
“We really want to investigate all of these interventions,” he said. “This is our mission. It’s not only to give care but it is to do an evaluation and to do research. That’s why we’re here.”
For instance, while different forms of meditation have been widely studied in relation to reducing stress, blood pressure and hypertension, not as much work has been done with that practice and cancer, said Dr. Vernon Barnes, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at GRU and a researcher in meditation with the Georgia Prevention Center.
But the potential is there, he said.
A 2009 study in older women with stage II or greater breast cancer found those randomized to do Transcendental Mediation along with treatment reported improved emotional and social well-being. A 2013 study from Korea found women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer who also got meditation therapy sessions reported less anxiety, fatigue and an improvement in quality of life. The key is the integration between the mind and the body, Barnes said.
“When the mind settles down, the body settles down,” he said.
And that calming effect on the body is what likely impacts the cancer patient, Barnes said.
“You’re giving the physiology a chance to get the deepest level of rest,” he said. “Any doctor will tell you that it is the rest that heals. The deeper the rest, the greater the ability of the body to heal itself.”
Having an integrative program means building on the patient- and family-centered care approach at GRU, said Dr. Robert Pendergrast, the director of adolescent medicine and a member of the steering committee for integrative oncology at the cancer center. That means providing things that can increase wellness, such as yoga or meditation, and also asking about their pain and anxiety, their family relationships, their hopes and fears, he said.
“All of those things communicate to the patient that we are more interested in who they are as a whole person than in simply the disease that they have,” Pendergrast said.
While meditation and cancer could be a “gold mine” for research, Barnes said, it could be difficult to precisely tease out the beneficial effects from some of the side benefits of meditation, which is that most practitioners tend to stop smoking or drinking and eat healthier. But that could be a new approach for integrative research and treatment where researchers “look at a whole person shift toward wellness as the intervention you want,” Pendergrast said. “That’s the clinical intervention is a person who is more whole and more well rather than a person who got a specific medicine. That goes hand in hand with chemotherapy and radiation and surgery and probably in fact makes all of those things work better.”
Top cancer programs, such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, already have these types of integrative treatment programs available, Rixe said.
“Our mission is to make it possible in Georgia,” he said.