Patients add meditation to treatment plans
Nancy Dolan-Brady felt dreadful.
Weeks into a regime of intense chemotherapy to fight stage 3 colon cancer, she lay in bed, nauseous, aching, sweating, miserable. But then, a light breeze floated through her window carrying a much-needed moment of relief.
Normally, she wouldn't have even noticed the breeze, which cooled and dried her skin, leaving her calm. But Dolan-Brady had been practicing mindful meditation, allowing her to pay closer attention to her body and environment.
“In the midst of misery, this simple thing became a bright spot when everything was tinged with ugliness and darkness,” says Dolan-Brady, 57, of Mt. Washington. “Something simple became a glimmer of life and hope.”
The use of meditation to help treat certain medical conditions has become common practice, doctors say. Meditation has moved from the fringes into mainstream medical care. According to the National Institutes of Health, 20 million people in the U.S. practice meditation. Evidence suggests it can help manage blood pressure, anxiety, stress and pain and help strengthen the immune system. It can ease headaches and gastrointestinal problems and help with heart disease and conception.
Several Pittsburgh-area doctors have been incorporating the technique into their treatment plans for years.
“Meditation has been around for millennia,” says Carol Greco, who teaches UPMC's Center for Integrative Medicine Mindfulness Meditation Program. “Recently, we're seeing more and more research into the health effects it has on various issues.”
Stress is a normal response when people feel threatened in any way, says Dr. Betsy Blazek-O'Neill, director of the Integrated Medicine Program at Allegheny General Hospital. It results in increased heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline. Hormones released during periods of stress can affect the body's calcium level. When those symptoms go on for a long time, it causes problems.
Meditation slows the heart rate and decreases blood pressure.
“Just like a car is not designed to run at the highest RPMs, neither is the body,” says Joseph Cvitkovic, director of behavioral health care at Jefferson Regional Medical Center.
Cvitkovic teaches patients meditation to help treat a variety of conditions, including cancer.
“People undergoing chemotherapy often experience nausea and fatigue,” he says. “Patients can learn to offset that and relax to decrease problems with nausea and general anxiety.”
Meditation should always be used in conjunction with traditional treatment, Greco advises, and just like traditional medicine, it doesn't work the same way for everyone.
“You need to have the willingness to learn and practice,” she says. “It's about approaching stress in a different way, being more flexible.”
While “meditation” might conjure an image of a robed person sitting cross-legged in a darkened room with tapestries and candles, it really can be done anywhere, anytime, doctors say. People can simply take a few minutes to concentrate on their breathing. Students in Greco's class sit in chairs in “alert but relaxed postures.” It can be done when walking, lying down, during yoga, during prayer, even in traffic — with eyes open, of course.
“It's not dependent on absolute stillness,” Greco says. “You can bring it into your daily life.”
The most important part, Cvitkovic says, is mindfulness, “paying particular attention to sensory experiences.” By focusing on simple things — the act of eating, breathing, one's surroundings — people can slow the nervous system and perhaps forget about pain they're experiencing.
Staying focused isn't always easy, but mind-wandering is totally normal, doctors say.
“When you try to oppress it, it shouts even louder,” Greco says. “The mind is like a puppy: You have to train it.”
Blazek-O'Neill says fear of losing concentration can dissuade people from even trying meditation.
“Some people find it easy, but some find it really difficult and anxiety-producing in itself,” she says. “There is a problem in our society with people having (trouble) sitting still and being quiet.”
The best thing to do, O'Neill says, is to “recognize you've become distracted and come back to a point of focus.”
Kate Joranson, 36, of Squirrel Hill, admits concentrating while meditating can be a challenge, but it gets easier with practice. She took Greco's class to help manage chronic leg pain she experienced post-surgery. As a result, she says, she used less medication.
“It helps me notice when I'm feeling the beginning of a painful day,” she says. “I dread it and my muscles get tight, which makes it worse. The class taught me to slow down and notice each sensation rather than getting all worked up about it.”
Joranson says the patience she learned from meditation has affected many areas of her life, including her listening skills.
“When you start listening to your body's needs, you start listening to others better,” she says. “You're more able to focus and concentrate.”
Dolan-Brady, also one of Greco's students, says for her, meditation is about being completely present.
“We all have a tendency to live partly in the past or thinking about what we have to do five minutes from now,” she says. “We tend to overlook exactly where we are right now — what we're thinking, how we're breathing, what we're experiencing. You gain an appreciation of really living right here, right now.”
Dolan-Brady's first scan post-treatment was clear. She still practices mindfulness, often starting her day with a mental body scan during which she takes time to think about each body part and assess how she feels.
The biggest change, she says, is how she thinks about her body and what it's capable of.
“I remember having a very negative attitude about my body when it was being subjected to hell and doing the best job it could simply to survive,” she says. “It was really doing an amazing job. I transferred that into a feeling of being grateful and compassionate to myself.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.