Science Backs Mind-Body Tools Like Meditation and Music for Cancer-Related Anxiety

Aug. 30, 2023
At Wilmot, Many Services are Available to All Patients for Free

A new set of national guidelines recommends that cancer patients use mind-body techniques—particularly mindfulness meditation—to ease anxiety and depression during and after treatment.

Yoga, hypnosis, acupuncture, and music therapy were also among the “integrative oncology” interventions that showed strong enough evidence to recommend to patients. Other methods, such as inhaling lavender essential oils during cancer-related medical procedures, came with weaker recommendations due to less compelling data—but still would do no harm and may provide some benefit, researchers said.

Dr. Alissa Huston, oncologist at Wilmot Cancer Institute
Alissa Huston, M.D.

A Wilmot Cancer Institute oncologist, Alissa Huston, MD, associate professor of Medicine and Hematology/Oncology, was part of a national team that reviewed scientific data and made recommendations based on clinical study outcomes.

The guidelines were recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“It’s so exciting to have these tools to utilize—and to have the scientific evidence to back up what works for anxiety and depression in people with cancer,” said Huston, who practices mostly at Wilmot’s Pluta location in Henrietta, and is co-medical director of the Pluta Integrative Oncology and Wellness Center.

“Now, we have evidence-based guidelines for mind-body therapies, similar to what we use to guide other treatments for cancer,” Huston said. “This will help our patients with decision-making, and we can educate them about what is effective and safe.”

More than 40 percent of individuals with cancer report anxiety or depression associated with the diagnosis and may suffer a reduced quality of life, Huston said.

She and co-authors reviewed 110 studies on integrative oncology interventions. The Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO) and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) convened the expert panel.

One interesting outcome of the study: Supplements were not recommended.

Although many cancer patients take supplements for anxiety, Huston said, scientific data is inconclusive and some studies show they can be unsafe due to harmful interactions with cancer medications. She suggested that patients talk candidly with their physicians about all vitamins and supplements they are taking.

What is Integrative Medicine?

It’s a growing field that combines well-researched complementary therapies with well-researched conventional medicine, tailored to a patient’s symptoms and needs. Integrative oncology is specific to cancer and emphasizes lifestyle changes and mind-body practices that can be used alongside cancer treatment.

Wilmot is somewhat unique in that its integrative oncology and wellness center is available, cost-free, for all Wilmot patients throughout the 27-county upstate New York region it serves.

Many services are available online (see a calendar of classes with a Zoom link) or through a digital library of videos that patients can use at home. The on-site location at Wilmot’s Pluta Cancer Center has an exercise room and provides professional nutrition advice, massage, and other services depending on whether a patient is in active treatment or has finished.

A clinical trial evaluating music therapy for breast cancer patients receiving radiation treatment is currently open, Huston said. Patients can ask their oncologists if they are eligible.

The national study noted that despite widespread acceptance of integrative oncology, roadblocks do exist.

  • A lack of understanding by some doctors has been a problem but may become less of an issue now that the SIO-ASCO guidelines are peer-reviewed and published.
  • Distance to services is often a problem for patients. But at Wilmot, virtual resources are available to everyone. (See links above.)
  • Integrative oncology services are not always covered by insurance. But at Wilmot, services are free to all cancer patients—thanks to support from the Pluta Cancer Center Foundation.

Evidence shows that mindfulness-based interventions, such as meditation, are the most effective therapies for cancer-related anxiety and depression. Anyone can practice these techniques in stressful situations, Huston said, such as while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room to learn scan results.

To quiet negative thoughts and bring a sense of calm: Take slow, deep breaths and focus on positive affirmations or phrases that have a spiritual meaning, such as “peace” or words from a favorite prayer, or “I am getting better every day.” Learn more about meditation here.