For breast cancer survivors, previous research has suggested that meditation and yoga promote numerous health benefits, such as reducing fatigue and stress. Now, a new study claims these activities or getting involved in support groups may be beneficial at a cellular level.

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Mindfulness-based meditation incorporating yoga and emotional support groups were found to offer benefits at a cellular level for breast cancer survivors.

The research team - from the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services' Tom Baker Cancer Centre, both in Canada - found that mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga or attending emotional support groups protected the telomeres of breast cancer survivors.

Telomeres are structures at the end of chromosomes that protect them from damage. Shortened telomeres are associated with increased aging and risk of disease, while longer telomeres are believed to protect 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," says principal investigator Linda E. Carlson, PhD, of the Department of Psychological Resources at the Tom Baker Cancer Center.

To reach their findings, published in the journal Cancer, Carlson and colleagues enrolled 271 female breast cancer survivors of an average age of 55. The women had completed all medical treatments at least 3 months prior to the study and were experiencing high levels of emotional stress.

Some of the women were randomly assigned to a mindfulness-based cancer recovery group, in which they were required to attend a 90-minute group session of mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga once a week for 8 weeks. In addition, the women were asked to practice meditation and yoga at home for 45 minutes a day.

Other participants were placed in a supportive express therapy group. They were required to a attend a 90-minute group session once a week for 12 weeks, in which they were encouraged to talk about their feelings and concerns with other women in the group.

Acting as controls, some of the women were assigned to attend one 6-hour stress management class.

To allow the researchers to assess participants' telomere length, blood samples were taken from the women before and after they completed their assigned interventions.

An 'exciting and encouraging discovery'

Of the 271 women included in the study, 88 attended all the required sessions over the 3-month study period.

The researchers found that the women who were a part of the mindfulness-based cancer recovery group or the supportive express therapy group had greater telomere length at the end of the study, compared with controls.

These findings, the team says, indicate that "it is possible to influence telomere length in cancer survivors through the use of psychosocial interventions involving group support, emotional expression, stress reduction, and mindfulness meditation."

Commenting on the study results, Carlson says:

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

One of the study participants, Deanne David - who was assigned to the mindfulness-based cancer recovery groups - says that being a part of this research has made a "huge difference" to her life. "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," she adds.

What are the study's limitations?

The team notes that the study is unable to demonstrate the long-term effects that psychosocial interventions may have on telomere length, which is something they say should be investigated in future research.

They point out that the number of women in the control group was small - only 18 were included - therefore the results may be disproportionate.

Furthermore, the researchers say previous studies have shown that telomere length may vary with breast cancer subtypes but they were unable to gather this information from participants. "Telomere length also may be affected by chemotherapy among patients with breast cancer," they note, "but effects varied across participants in previous research."

Medical News Today recently reported on a study from the University of California-Los Angeles suggesting that Tai Chi - a Chinese martial art - may reduce chronic inflammation for breast cancer survivors with insomnia.