How Mindfulness Can Help You Manage Cancer-Related Pain

How Mindfulness Can Help You Manage Cancer-Related Pain

by Emily Cox-Martin, PhD, and Diane Novy, PhD

Pain is a multidimensional experience. It can affect you both physically and emotionally. By the same token, pain can also be treated using more than one method. One strategy often used by clinical psychologists and other mental health providers to help cancer survivors manage pain is called mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of your thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and perceptions as they are happening, without judgement. That is to say, mindfulness allows you to notice these experiences in the moment, acknowledging their occurrence, but not necessarily labeling them as good or bad. Mindfulness is about paying attention right now, not getting wrapped up in the past or present. 

Many survivors may find that they sometimes think about their cancer-related pain, even when they aren’t actually feeling any. They worry about it coming back, and they worry about it getting worse. This anticipation of pain not only can increase your overall distress, but it can also make you more aware of your pain when it does return or increase. Mindfulness can help keep you in the present moment, focused on how you are feeling right now, and not on the pain you might feel in the future. 

It is a given in the mental health field that a person’s mood and their perception of pain are connected. When you are depressed or sad, your pain often seems worse. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to improve emotion regulation, increasing positive emotions and decreasing negative ones. Overall, mindfulness is associated with decreased pain intensity in the moment, as well as longer-lasting decreases in perceived pain over time. So you see, it isn’t just a skill to be used only when you are experiencing pain. No, mindfulness can have long-term positive effects on pain management. 

Mindfulness Skills 

Mindfulness skills can be practiced at any time, in any place. However, if you are just starting, it may be helpful to practice in a warm, quiet location with few distractions (including your cell phone). People often find it most comfortable to practice mindfulness while sitting with their legs and arms uncrossed and resting gently. 

While mindfulness skills can be used in any moment when you are feeling pain, or anxiety related to your pain, you can practice these skills at other times as well. This way, you can have the skill down before the time comes when you really need to use it.


Mindful Breathing 

To practice mindful breathing, begin by focusing on your breath, the inhale and the exhale. Deeply inhale through your nose, hold your breath a moment, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. 

You may want to count along with your breath at first – count to three while breathing in, hold for two, and then exhale to a count of four. 

As you breathe, notice the sensation of the air flowing through your nostrils. Notice the movement of your chest, and the feeling of the air entering and leaving your body. If your mind starts to wander, that’s OK. Just bring your attention back to the breathing activity. See if you can practice mindful breathing for five minutes. Then work your way up to seven or even ten minutes at a time. 

Digging Deeper into Mindfulness

The following are recommended books and audio CDs to help you as you begin your mindfulness practice:

  • Wherever You Go, There You Are:Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD  
  • Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment – and Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD 
  • The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh 
  • Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief: Guided Practices for Reclaiming Your Body and Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD (Audio)
  • Mindfulness Meditation: Nine Guided Practices to Awaken Presence and Open Your Heart by Tara Brach, PhD (Audio)
  • Mindfulness Meditation: Cultivating the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD (Audio)

Mindfulness Body Scan 

This exercise is often done lying down, feet extended and hip-width apart, with arms by your sides, palms facing up. (However, feel free to do it sitting down as well.) During this exercise, you scan your body from head to toe – or toe to head – focusing your attention on each part of the body. Notice any tension or tightness in your feet, shins, thighs, etc., all the way up, and focus on softening that tension. Allow relaxation to occur in each muscle group before moving on to the next. 

Try to spend about one minute on each body part. See how detailed you can become in your focus. Can you focus on a single foot, a single toe, the toenail on your pinkie toe? Your intention is to become aware of the sensations occurring in each part of your body as you scan through.

Mindfulness is a simple meditation practice that doesn’t take a lot of time and can easily be adapted to fit your needs. Practicing mindfulness can help you better manage cancer-related pain. It can also improve your mood and lower your stress. And though mastering mindfulness may take some practice, getting started is as easy as taking five minutes to breathe.   

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Dr. Emily Cox-Martin

Dr. Emily Cox-Martin (left) is an assistant professor in the Division of Medical Oncology at the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Denver, CO.

Dr. Diane Novy (right) is a professor in the Department of Pain Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. 

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2016.