Evidence of cellular changes in breast cancer survivors from meditation and group support

Living Well Magazine Summer 2014/15

A new study has shown that telomeres maintain their length in breast cancer survivors who meditate or attend a support group, while the telomeres in the comparison group without any interventions actually shorten.

So what are telomeres and why are they so important? Telomeres are protective protein complexes at the end of our chromosomes, essential for preserving genetic information and maintaining genetic stability. They’re like the protective caps you see on the end of shoelaces to stop them from fraying. Our telomeres generally shorten as we age and the shortness of telomeres is a prognostic marker of disease, ageing and premature death. Longer telomeres are associated with better health and increased longevity. So needless to say, looking after your telomeres where possible is really important.  Previous studies conducted by Dean Ornish as well as Elizabeth Blackburn, as featured in Living Well in January 2014, have indicated that particular healthy lifestyle interventions (including meditation) are associated with increases in telomere length.

Meditation is becoming more widely recognised and recommended in cancer care for the benefits it provides in relation to mental and emotional support and to help in dealing with some of the negative side effects of chemotherapy.  Now for the first time, new research out of Alberta Health Services’ Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the University of Calgary Department of Oncology has shown the positive physical impact that meditation and attending a support group has on breast cancer survivors specifically.

“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,” says Dr. Linda E. Carlson, PhD, principal investigator and director of research in the Psychosocial Resources Department at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

The study involved 88 breast cancer survivors, with an average age of 55, who had completed treatments for at least three month. They were split into three groups. One group, the Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery Group, attended 90 minute group sessions on mindfulness meditation and hatha yoga once a week for eight weeks as well as 45 minutes of home practise daily.

In the Support Expressive Therapy Group, they met for 90 minutes per week over 12 weeks to express their emotions openly and talk about their feelings within a group support setting.

Participants in the control group attended just one six hour stress management talk.

The results were measured by blood analysis and measuring telomere length of each participant in each group before and after the interventions.

Allison McPherson was placed in the mindfulness group. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and found the study to be life-changing.  “I was sceptical at first and thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus,” says McPherson, who underwent a full year of chemotherapy and numerous surgeries. “But I now practise mindfulness throughout the day and it’s reminded me to become less reactive and kinder toward myself and others.”

Another participant in the mindfulness group said, “Being part of this made a huge difference to me. “I think people involved in their own cancer journey would benefit from learning more about mindfulness and connecting with others who are going through the same things.”

You can read the full study online http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.29063/full

Or access the press release at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_ releases/2014-11/ahs-ssc103114.php

Results:

Eighty-eight distressed breast cancer survivors with a diagnosis of stage I to III cancer (using the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM staging system) who had completed treatment at least 3 months prior participated. Using analyses of covariance on a per-protocol sample, there were no differences noted between the MBCR and SET groups with regard to the telomere/single-copy gene ratio, but a trend effect was observed between the combined intervention group and controls (F [1,84], 3.82; P = .054; η2 = .043); TL in the intervention group was maintained whereas it was found to decrease for control participants.