Prostate cancer, while deadly, often grows very slowly. Some individuals who develop prostate cancer will never even experience symptoms from it, while others will encounter symptoms that are more uncomfortable than dangerous. Researchers estimate that many men who are being aggressively treated for prostate cancer would instead benefit from active surveillance, a treatment regimen that involves regularly monitoring disease progression rather than treating the cancer outright.
Unfortunately, many individuals who elect to receive active surveillance experience anxiety. This is especially true for people with a history of mental illness. Active surveillance of prostate cancer – as opposed to actively treating prostate cancer – has been described as: “Living life under a dark shadow that was a threat to life.”
Researchers at Northwestern University and NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois, set out to determine whether mindfulness meditation training can alleviate some of the anxiety associated with active surveillance of prostate cancer. The results of this pilot study were published in the scientific journal Psycho-Oncology.
The study was led by health psychologist David Victorson, an associate professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Victorson and his team wanted to examine how mindfulness training affects anxiety in individuals who are currently under active surveillance for prostate cancer.
“It’s very understandable that some men will feel concerned with the knowledge that they indeed have prostate cancer but are asked to NOT do anything to remove it,” explained Victorson. “For many men this can create a great deal of inner turmoil. This turmoil can build up over time and eventually lead to men seeking surgical intervention when it may not ultimately be necessary.”
Mindfulness meditation is a specific form of meditation that involves observing both internal and external stimuli with acceptance, patience and compassion. In the past, mindfulness meditation has been found to alleviate anxiety and mental stress.
The researchers examined 43 men with low-risk prostate cancer who were currently under active surveillance. Roughly half of the group (24 men) received mindfulness training, whereas the other half (19 men) did not. Each participant reported to the researchers at regular intervals so that the researchers could measure their rates of prostate cancer anxiety, how well they tolerated uncertainty and their overall quality of life. The researchers also measured levels of posttraumatic growth, or how well they were coping with their diagnosis.
After one year, individuals who had received mindfulness training demonstrated significantly decreased prostate cancer anxiety and uncertainty intolerance. They also experienced greater levels of global mental health and posttraumatic growth.
What does this mean?
Since the researchers looked at only a few patients, it’s impossible to say for certain whether mindfulness training is an effective way of reducing anxiety in this entire population. These early results are encouraging. However, the researchers hope to complete more studies that focus on helping individuals currently undergoing active surveillance.
“I believe we have an opportunity to investigate and equip men with additional tools above and beyond surgical intervention that can help them manage cancer-related uncertainty intolerance,” said Victorson.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.