Cellular evidence for mind-body connection in breast cancer survivors

For the first time, researchers have shown that practicing mindfulness meditation or being involved in a support group has a positive physical impact at the cellular level in breast cancer survivors. Telomeres, which are the protein complexes at the end of chromosomes, have been found to maintain their length in breast cancer survivors who practice meditation or are involved in support groups, whereas they shorten in a comparison group that used no intervention.

Although the disease-regulating properties of telomeres are not fully understood, shortened telomeres are associated with several disease states, as well as cell aging, and longer telomeres are thought to be protective against disease.

"We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology," said Linda E. Carlson, PhD, principal investigator and director of research in the Psychosocial Resources Department at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre of Alberta Health Services in Canada. The study, published in Cancer (2014; doi:10.1002/cncr.29063/full), was a collaboration with the University of Calgary Department of Oncology.

"It was surprising that we could see any difference in telomere length at all over the 3-month period studied," said Carlson. "Further research is needed to better quantify these potential health benefits, but this is an exciting discovery that provides encouraging news."

A total of 88 breast cancer survivors who had completed their treatments for at least 3 months were involved for the duration of the study. The average age was 55 years and most participants had ended treatment 2 years prior. To be eligible, they also had to be experiencing significant levels of emotional distress.

In the Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery group, participants attended eight weekly 90-minute group sessions that provided instruction on mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga, with the goal of cultivating nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Participants were also asked to practice meditation and yoga at home for 45 minutes daily.

In the Supportive Expressive Therapy group, participants met for 90 minutes weekly for 12 weeks and were encouraged to talk openly about their concerns and their feelings. The objectives were to build mutual support and to guide women in expressing a wide range of both difficult and positive emotions, rather than suppressing or repressing them.

The participants randomly placed in the control group attended one 6-hour stress management seminar.

All study participants had their blood analyzed and telomere length measured before and after the interventions.

Scientists have shown a short-term effect of these interventions on telomere length compared to a control group, but it is not known if the effects are lasting. Carlson explained that another avenue for further research is to see if the psychosocial interventions have a positive impact beyond the 3 months of the study period.

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