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The Mind and Cancer

Researcher Dr. Linda Carlson

What causes cancer?

Cancer has many causes. In most people, it is the result of a complex interaction between many factors. For many people, cancer is the result of having contracted certain viruses decades before the cancer diagnosis. For even more people, cancer is the result of exposure to environmental toxins; just living in the modern world exposes most of us to a constant bombardment of toxins in our air, water, and food. Two more causes of cancer are ionizing radiation such as from CT scans and radiotherapy, and electromagnetic radiation, such as from cellphones and microwave towers. Many plastic bottles contain endocrine disrupters that leach into the water or other fluid. However, the identical level of toxic exposure in any group of people will have different clinical significance in different people because of different genetics, epigenetics, and many other variables. 

Emotional distress is still another variable, because it causes chronic physiological stress, and that interferes with immune function, which then makes it more difficult to kill the cancer cells that we all have growing inside us all the time. 

 The Effects of Mindfulness on Cancer

Mindfulness has been associated with improved physiological functioning, which, on occasion can improve the odds of recovering from cancer. Mindfulness is a profound practice to better manage emotional distress. Managing any aspect of life successfully provides a sense of mastery. Reduced emotional distress and an increased sense of mastery serve to reduce physiological stress. Reduced physiological stress is always good for health. Even though it does not commonly lead to recovery from cancer, it does improve the odds, and on occasion has led to full and unexpected recovery from advanced metastatic disease.

The Carlson Studies

Research psychologist Dr. Linda Carlson found increased antitumor activity against breast cancer among the mindfulness practitioners. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes were offered to people living with breast cancer and prostate cancer who were three months or more post-treatment. Carlson discovered that the mindfulness practitioners had increased T-cell production of Interleukin (IL)-4, a decrease in interferon gamma, and a decrease in NK-cell production of IL-10—all changes that are consistent with improved immune function. Their one-year follow-up revealed a lasting response in improved immune function as evidenced by a continued diminution in pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-4 and IL10. Cancer survivors commonly have increased cortisol levels; in this study, cortisol levels normalized. Also, the toxicity of chemotherapy negatively impacts cardiovascular health, but during the course of the eight-week MBSR class, blood pressure normalized—one of the signs of improved cardiovascular health.

 In one study, MBSR classes were offered as an intervention to attempt to reduce mood disturbance and other symptoms of emotional distress in ninety cancer patients (mean age fifty-one years) using a random wait-list controlled procedure. Those in the treatment group reported significantly lower scores on total mood disturbance and subscales of depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion, as well as more energy than controls. The treatment group also had fewer stress symptoms, fewer cardiopulmonary and gastrointestinal symptoms, less emotional irritability and cognitive disorganization, and fewer habitual patterns of stress. The overall reduction in mood disturbance was 65 percent, with a 31 percent reduction in stress symptoms. Subsequent follow-up measures showed that these changes had been maintained six months later.

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