Mindfulness During Cancer – conversation with Dr. Linda Carlson


2020 was a crucial year and brought on many new and reoccurring stressors not unlike the uncertainties of those faced with a cancer diagnosis. Mental health is now, more than ever, at the forefront of all our minds.

On February 3, we sat down to chat with Dr. Linda Carlson, professor in the Faculty of Medicine and co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness (full biography below). She defines mindfulness as “Paying attention on purpose in the present moment with an open and accepting attitude." During the our, Dr. Carlson helped break down what mindfulness is, provided research-based examples of how it can help reduce stress, support mental health during cancer and gave us practical mindfulness tips that can be beneficial in your everyday professional and personal lives.

Watch the full conversation or read through our Q&A's from the event below.




Q&A with Dr. Carlson

A: Purposely paying attention to the present moment with a certain attitude towards yourself that is non-judgmental and accepting.

If you’re not paying attention, your thoughts are in the past (regrets, ruminating about things you can’t change) or racing about the future (worries of the unknown.)

A: Stress is largely how we interpret or perceive what is happening. There are two sides to it; there's the cognitive—or the way we think about, or what causes stress—and there's what it does to our body.

Understanding mindfulness and being in the present stops us from thinking about the past and worrying about the future and being mindful in that moment can help manage stress.

We will never know for any individual how much of a role stress may have played in leading up to risk for cancer but what we do know, though, is that when people learn to manage and especially manage emotions like depression, they may have better cancer outcomes.

This exercise helps us notice where our attention wants to go; and so we will try to direct it on the breath. But you'll notice as you're doing it that your attention is jumping around, two parts:
  • Paying attention to the breath and the body
  • The other piece is noticing what your mind wants to do instead
  1. Place one hand on your chest and the other hand lower down on your belly
  2. Let go of any judgement
  3. Don't analyze the way you're breathing, just pay attention to how the breath is coming and going in your body.
  4. Breath in
  5.  You may want to sit up a bit so that you can feel the breath moving in your body
  6. As you breathe in you'll notice movement. Just try noting if you feel that movement in the top hand or the bottom hand and the length of the breath. Then as you breathe out, try taking note again of the same thing—where's the movement and how does it feel.
  7. Is the ‘in’ breath a similar length to the out? Or is one shorter than the other?
  8. What happens as you switch from in to out, is there a pause?
  9. If your mind wanders, lead it back to your breath and approach it with a sense of curiosity and openness.
  10. Does your breath change in anyway?
  11. Take a few more breaths
  12. Lower your hands
  13. Open your eyes


A: Mindfulness retraining is a skill.  

Our minds have learned to operate a certain way through so many years, and often those paths support anxiety or depression or worry, those are the neural connections that we so often tread. So, with mindfulness training, even something as simple as directing your attention to the breath repeatedly actually starts a new path and rewires the neurons in our brain to a path that supports the ability to be conducive to happy minutes.

Studies have shown that even two months of training changes the patterns, the function as well as the connectivity in your brain. It's that training that skill building that does it well.

A: Incorporate 10, 20 or 30 minutes a day if that’s what you can do. Regular practice is useful. Making it part of your life and applying those attitudes towards not only your mindfulness practice, but other elements of your life, can be beneficial.

A:  Mindfulness is a meditation practice where we do the formal act, where we set aside the time every day to practice mindfulness of breath. Paying attention to your breathing is a way to retrain the mind, there are other many other forms of meditation that also strengthen your capacity to be mindful.

A: Mindfulness practice is a time where you can purposefully open the doors to your emotions. Emotions are healthy. What's unhealthy is suppressing emotions or pretending they don't exist, and thinking you have to put on a happy face all the time. Letting go of the facade and just saying, ‘it's okay to feel rotten’, ‘it's okay to be scared’, ‘it's okay to be sad’. There's grief in this process.

The mindfulness practice is a wonderful container where you can allow yourself to just work through and process those different emotions, because they will shift and change, but only if we give them the space to move.

A:  People often believe that it's our job to manage the emotions of the people in our lives; but it's not your job to do that. It's your job to manage how you respond to their distress, it's not your job to fix their distress.

Refer them to sources of support and counselors you know. Supporting people usually feel like they haveto pull it together because the focus is usually on the patient; mindfulness helps everyone.

A: When pain arises, what we do is actually turn our attention towards the pain and deconstruct the sensation. Instead of turning away from the pain, we turn towards it and embrace it again with kindness and compassion and learn to understand it a little bit better. So the pain itself may not go away, but the suffering we experience can be much less.

A:  Yoga is a moving mediation. It’s paying attention in a mindful way and it's really about connecting with the body. Our mind and body are not separate. Every state of mind is the state of body and sometimes we're so disconnected from our physical bodies.

When you've gone through the experience of cancer there can be more of that disconnection, and there can be hard feelings; you can be mad at your body or feel betrayed. It's really an opportunity to reconnect with the body and re-friend the body and realize that you know as long as you're here, you're breathing and moving that there's more going right then there is going wrong.

A: You can get in a negative spiral where maybe you have a symptom that was something you had when you first got diagnosed with cancer, you become very vigilant and you're stressing, you keep monitoring it. Maybe you're poking yourself. You get really wound up and that tends to make the symptom worse.

One way to avoid this is when you notice the symptom, say okay well this may or may not be related to cancer so I’m not going to worry about it right now. I’ll just use what I know how to relax do a few deep breaths. And if this persists, then go to the doctor.

Recognize it, you set it aside, you do the kind of relaxation and meditation practices and often it'll just pass. But if it does persist, then you've got a plan that you're going to get it looked into.

This Speakers’ Series was generously sponsored by The Globe and Mail.

Please note that the information provided is intended as general information and not meant to replace the medical advice you receive from your primary care team.  You should always consult your healthcare practitioner with any questions or concerns.


Dr. Linda Carlson holds the Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology, is Full Professor in Psychosocial Oncology in the Department of Oncology, Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychology. She is the Director of Research and works as a Clinical Psychologist at the Department of Psychosocial Resources at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre (TBCC), where she has worked since 1997. She also holds a CIHR SPOR-funded mentorship chair in innovative clinical trials, which funds the TRACTION program (Training in Research And Clinical Trials in Integrative Oncology), supporting a multidisciplinary group of University of Calgary fellows studying Integrative Oncology.

Dr. Carlson received the Kawano New Investigator Award from the International Psycho-Oncology Society in 2006; the William E. Rawls Prize in cancer control from the National Cancer Institute of Canada/Canadian Cancer Society in 2007; a New Investigator Award from the Canadian Psychological Association Health Section in 2009, the inaugural Research Excellence award from the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology in 2010, the Arete Award for Research Excellence from the Department of Oncology at the University of Calgary in 2012, the Bernard Fox Memorial Award from the International Psycho-Oncology Society in 2019, and was shortlisted for the Dr. Rogers Prize in Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019. She is also a fellow of the Society for Behavioral Medicine and the Mind and Life Institute, is the President-Elect of the Society for Integrative Oncology, and is Co-Editor-in-Chief for the official International Psycho-Oncology Society journal: The Journal of Psychosocial Oncology Research and Practice.

Dr. Carlson's research in Psychosocial Oncology, Integrative Oncology and Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery has been published in many high-impact journals and book chapters, and she published a patient manual in 2011 with Michael Speca entitled: Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A step-by-step MBSR approach to help you cope with treatment and reclaim your life, in addition to a professional training manual in 2009 (2nd Edition 2017) with Shauna Shapiro entitled The Art and Science of Mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions. She has published over 200 research papers and book chapters, holds several millions of dollars in grant funding and is regularly invited to present her work at international conferences, most recently in Netherlands, Switzerland, China, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Israel and all across Canada and the USA. She presented a TEDx talk called Mindfulness for Personal and Collective Evolution in 2016, you can find the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgZd5GvZ5Qs

Looking for more Speakers' Series?

Last September we sat down with, Onco-Dermatologist, Dr. Maxwell Sauder and had a conversation about how to manage skincare during cancer. Click here to read our Q&A and watch some video clips of our amazing chat.

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