One of your most powerful tools for managing breast cancer treatment and side effects sits squarely atop your shoulders. Using certain mental and physical techniques, you can learn to harness your thoughts and perceptions to change the way your body reacts to internal and external signals. This is called mind-body medicine.

Many mind-body techniques focus on producing the “relaxation response” — a state of deep relaxation that counteracts the fight-or-flight (or stress) response to promote healing.

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Jane Ehrman, MEd, CHES, a mind-body medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, gives this imagery exercise to patients experiencing nausea from treatment: “Close your eyes and picture yourself in a place that is beautiful, safe and restful. Take in all the sights, sounds and sensations of that spot. Now imagine your place has a long marble staircase. Start to walk down it barefoot and notice how refreshingly cool the steps feel on the bottoms of your feet. Wiggle your toes into the step and notice how firm it feels. Take a deep breath in and exhale as you step down to the next step and feel that cool, firm sensation on your other foot. Inhale and then exhale as you step down to the next step.” Do this for five minutes or more, whenever and as long as necessary to feel better.

Mind-body medicine is well suited to people going through cancer: Most mind-body exercises are safe and effective; they don’t interact with other medications or upset your stomach; you can practice on your schedule; and you can feel some of the changes, like relaxation, immediately.

QUIZ: Are You Feeling Stressed?

Research at the Cleveland Clinic has shown that mind-body techniques, like guided imagery, and other integrative-medicine practices can help patients reduce their anxiety before surgery, deal with postoperative pain and speed recovery. Other research proves mind-body techniques can decrease the side effects of chemotherapy or discomfort from radiation, strengthen the immune system, improve sleep, enhance our ability to self-heal, and help overcome fear, stress and depression.

As with most complementary medicine, mind-body exercises should not be used as your primary method of treating breast cancer and should not be used to replace standard therapy.

Common Mind-Body Therapies
While there are dozens of mind-body techniques (art therapy, biofeedback, labyrinth walking and Reiki, to name a few), the most well-documented for cancer care include these:

The Technique How It’s Done: Benefits:
Imagery (or visualization) Imagery involves using your imagination to create a sensory experience of sights, sounds, feelings or taste that is relaxing.  Imagery can help relieve stress, pain and depression; decrease side effects of chemotherapy like nausea; decrease blood pressure; improve sleep; boost immune function; shorten hospital stays; and speed healing.
 Hypnotherapy (hypnosis therapy)  Hypnotherapy uses guided relaxation to arrive at a state of deep, attentive, focused concentration, sometimes called a trance, that can make it easier for you to relax and to control your body and mind. Hypnotherapy can enable you to block an awareness of sensations like pain, discomfort, nausea and fatigue; reduce fear and anxiety; create a sense of calm; speed recovery; and promote healing.
 Meditation Meditation helps you focus on the present moment and achieve a state of relaxation and calm. Mindfulness is one type of meditation. Meditation can reduce anxiety, nausea and fatigue from chemotherapy; relieve stress; lower blood pressure; and boost immune function. 
 Spirituality and Religion  Practices vary. Though we don’t know the exact mechanics, spiritual and religious beliefs seem to create a sense of connectedness, a positive attitude and a calm, relaxed state that promote healing and encourage health. For many, religion and spirituality provide a meaning to life that can help them to deal with cancer and accept death.


—   by Katherine Solem