Meditation may have profound effects on telomeres, DNA regions at the end of chromosomes, protecting them from deterioration.
You cannot escape cancer. You hear and read the statistics. You learn of people close to us, of celebrities, sports figures, people of all nationalities and walks of life who are victims of this disease. Seldom do you know what to say to people who have been diagnosed.
You avoid them. You want to make it go away, to learn there has been a mistake. You recognize your inability to help. You see your loved ones live in fear. IF you are diagnosed, you are at first numb. You muddle through various stages of fear and disbelief. Soon after the diagnosis, you are guided on a journey toward healing by health care providers. Fear is your traveling partner.
Patricia’s Cancer Survivorship Story
Imagine you are very young and someone dear to you is diagnosed with cancer. You lose that person to the disease and your entire life changes. After much formal education, you enjoy a successful career as a health care provider exposed to diseases and the real people who suffer.
This is the history of Patricia, a clinical nursing specialist. Her mother died of breast cancer when Patricia, the youngest of five children, was five years old. Her father had abandoned the family years earlier so Patricia and her siblings were sent to live with their grandfather.
Five years later their grandfather died. The children remained in their grandfather’s home and were cared for by hired housekeepers. Patricia felt lonely and abandoned. It was then that she began an obsession with thoughts of premature death, thoughts that continued on and consumed her (Sealy, 2012). Patricia became a neurotic, anxious adult.
At the age of 51, Patricia became a cancer patient.
Once treatment ended, Patricia was declared “cancer free” by her oncologist. She was admonished “nobody knows” by her surgeon. She was told “the risk of the cancer returning is the highest within three years” by her radiologist.
Patricia was confused.
The messages were different and elicited different reactions within her, yet all three messages were based on the same information. She needed a vehicle to change her emotional reactions to cancer.
Patricia chose mind-body medicine and a technique known as journaling. She began journaling to assuage her preoccupation with dying due to unresolved grief from her mother’s death, and fear of imposing the same grief on her children.
During treatment for breast cancer, she obsessively searched for signs the tumor was shrinking. “I journaled to express my fears and anxieties in an attempt to reduce these negative emotions and behaviors,” Patricia shares (Sealy, 2012, p. 38).
Mind-body medicine encompasses a range of practices and therapies designed to facilitate the mind’s capacity to affect health. While mind-body techniques predate modern biomedicine, the practices have received increased attention as biomedical research identifies mechanisms by which the mind and body influence each other (Wolsko, Eisenberg, Davis, & Phillips, 2004).
Meditation at a Cancer Support Center
Patricia also joined a meditation group at a cancer support center. The group practiced Metta and guided imagery forms of meditation. Metta begins with forgiveness. Students learn to forgive others and themselves.
Guided imagery uses words and sounds to help in bringing forth positive mental images, thoughts, and feelings. Patricia continued journaling and meditation. In assessing her journey through disease and recovery, she came to realize she experienced emotional cancer, spiritual cancer and breast cancer (Sealy, 2012).
With reflective journaling and meditation, Patricia
…was able to reconstruct the past by re-experiencing childhood wounds in the dual roles of the wounded child and the nurturing mother who provided comfort and support for my inner child… It empowered me toward self-acceptance and self-worth. (Sealy, 2012, p. 40)
In 2010, as a 2.5-year cancer survivor, Patricia opined:
Reflective journaling can assist people to identify cognitive patterns in their responses . . . Meditation can augment reflection toward emotional healing . . . Finding meaning in suffering can heal pain and free energy for the pursuit of justice, peace, and joy. (Sealy, 2012, p. 41)
Patricia experienced positive results by integrating journaling and meditation into her medical treatment plan for breast cancer. There are many such therapies. The most popular mind-body therapies in the U.S. are (Wolsko et al. 2004):
- Guided imagery
In the years before, during and after Patricia’s experience with breast cancer treatment and recovery, medical researchers were studying the physiological effects of the integration of mind-body therapies with conventional medical treatment.
We’ll discuss some independent studies, but the nitty-gritty details will not be included here. Citations at the end of this article are provided if you wish to know more than elaborated on here.
How Does Meditation Work on the Immune System?
A Canadian study involving 88 breast cancer survivors, published in 2015, concluded
Psychosocial interventions [meditation and yoga in this study] providing stress reduction and emotional support resulted in trends toward TL [telomere length] maintenance in distressed breast cancer survivors, compared with decreases in usual care. (Carlson et al. 2015, p. 476)
In brief, the intervention group was introduced to meditation and yoga during a one-day stress management seminar and experienced no shortening of telomeres during the study period. The control group had no such exposure and the telomere length decreased (Carlson et al. 2015).
But what are telomeres and what has their length to do with stress reduction and emotional support? For further understanding, let’s learn some terms and look at a visual:
1. Telomere: A region of DNA at the end of a chromosome. It protects the end from deteriorating or fusing with other chromosomes. Telomeres are made of repeated sequences of DNA (MedicineNet.com, 2012).
They are disposable buffers blocking the ends of the chromosomes, are destroyed during cell division and are remade by the enzyme telomerase (MedicineNet.com, 2012).
2. Telomerase: The enzyme that is concerned with the formation, maintenance and renovation of telomeres (MedicineNet.com, 2012)
3. Enzyme: Proteins that speed up the rate of a chemical reaction in a living organism. An enzyme acts as a catalyst for specific chemical reactions, converting a specific set of reactants (called substrates) into specific products. Without enzymes, life as we know it would not exist (MedicineNet.com, 2013).
4. Genome: All the genetic information possessed by any organism (MedicineNet.com, 2012).
To reduce the confusing medicalese, we might say telomeres are soldiers protecting the long string of DNA information contained in chromosomes as the cells divide. The soldiers need replenishing and this is accomplished with telomerase, the enzyme that causes the chemical reaction necessary to create new telomeres. It is then that DNA material has the integrity necessary to create the healthy living creatures populating Earth.
So, in the above study, the group participating in mind-body therapies exhibited no change in telomere length (TL) as compared to the group not engaged in mind-body therapies who exhibited shortened TL.
Practicing Meditation Impacts the Tiniest Regions of the Body
Based on the limited knowledge from above definitions, the importance of the outcome of this study is clear. To realize that practicing meditation and yoga for even a limited time, directly and positively impacts an essential microscopic area of the body is significant.
A study conducted at the University of California at both Davis and San Francisco locations was the first to link positive well-being (induced by intensive meditation) to long-term health.
Researchers deduced, “positive psychological changes that occur during meditation training are associated with greater telomerase activity (UCDavis, 2010).
Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain said, “The take-home message from this work is not that meditation directly increases telomerase activity and, therefore, a person’s health and longevity.
Rather, meditation may improve a person’s psychological well-being and in turn these changes are related to telomerase activity in immune cells, which has the potential to promote longevity in those cells. Activities that increase a person’s sense of well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of their physiology” (UCDavis, 2010).
The studies discussed here are reflective of massive research affirming the positive effects of mind-body medicine’s alliance with conventional medical treatment plans. Those effects are manifold with health implications holding first place and the potential of cost-savings in medical treatment and reduced recovery length following close behind.
“Activities that increase a person’s sense of well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of their physiology” (UCDavis, 2010).
Formal Meditation Practice and Study Class at ACEF
Aside from our regular meditation classes, and based on popular demand, Jim Johnson, from Lakeshore Buddhist Sangha, will facilitate a series of formal meditation classes and practices at ACEF. Sign up now for ACEF News, to learn more about upcoming dates and a description of the program.
The Absenger Cancer Education Foundation (ACEF) is a 501(c)(3) public charity. Your gift may qualify as a charitable deduction for federal income tax purposes. Please consult with your tax adviser or the IRS to determine whether your contribution is deductible.
Carlson, L. E., Beattie, T. L., Giese-Davis, J., Faris, P., Tamagawa, R., Fick, L. J., … Speca, M. (2015). Mindfulness-based cancer recovery and supportive-expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors: Psychosocial Interventions Affect TL. Cancer, 121(3), 476–484. http://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.29063
Enzyme. (2013). Retrieved from MedicineNet.com website http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=3266
Genome. (2012). Retrieved from MedicineNet.com website http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=3580
Positive psychological changes from meditation training linked to cellular health. (2010). Retrieved from UC Davis website http://news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=9669
Sealy, P. A. (2012). Autoethnography: Reflective Journaling and Meditation to Cope With Life-Threatening Breast Cancer. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 16(1), 38–41. http://doi.org/10.1188/12.CJON.38-41
Telomere. (2012). Retrieved from MedicineNet.com website http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=5727
Telomerase. (2012). Retrieved from MedicineNet.com website http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=9805
Wolsko, P. M., Eisenberg, D. M., Davis, R. B., & Phillips, R. S. (2004). Use of mind-body medical therapies: Results of a national survey. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 19(1), 43–50. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1525-1497.2004.21019.x