Mindfulness Meditation Improved Telomere Length in Breast Cancer Patients

Linda E. Carlson, Ph.D., R.Psych.                Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology Alberta Innovates-Health Solutions Health Scholar Professor, Department of Oncology, Faculty of Medicine    Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts University of Calgary Clinical Psychologist, Director of Research Department of Psychosocial ResourcesMedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Linda E. Carlson, Ph.D., R.Psych.               
Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology
Alberta Innovates-Health Solutions Health Scholar
Professor, Department of Oncology, Faculty of Medicine
Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts
University of Calgary Clinical Psychologist, Director of Research
Department of Psychosocial Resources

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Carlson: We have been investigating the effects of cancer support programs including the two in this study, Mindfulness-based cancer recovery, an 8-week group program in which patients learn mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga, and supportive-expressive therapy, a 12-week program where patients share difficult emotions in a supportive group environment. We know there is psychological benefit of these programs, but what about effects in the body?

Telomeres are the protective caps on the end of chromosomes (like the tips on shoelaces) that protect them from damage and degredation. They are longest when we are young and naturally get shorter as we age. Shorter telomere’s are associated with higher risk for many diseases, including cancer, and people with higher stress levels tend to have shorter telomeres.

This is the first study to investigate whether short psychosocial interventions can affect telomere length in cancer pateints. We randomly assigned breast cancer survivors with cancer-related distress, feelings such as anxiety, fear, worry, and depression, to either mindfulness-based cancer recovery, supportive expressive therapy or a control group that just had a minimal intervention. We took blood samples before and after the groups (or at equal time points for those in the control condition) and measured the length of the telomeres.

Women in both of the active support groups maintained the length of their telomeres over time, but the telomere length of women in the control group became shorter. This is the first controlled study to show that short-term interventions can actually have some effect on cellular aging in the telomeres.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Carlson: The take home message is that it seems important to find a way to cope with ongoing distress, fears, worries and sadness related to cancer, whether it’s done by learning stress reduction through meditation and mindfulness, or though expressing difficult emotions in a supportive environment. Stress most certainly manifests itself in the body, and finding ways to alleviate difficult emotions we now know can result in a more favourable cellular environment in the body as well as the mind. What this may mean for disease progress or prognosis is unknown at present.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Carlson: We would like to follow people for longer periods of time to see if these effects are longer-lasting than just over the three months of the intervention period. Does the beneficial effect last for 6 months or even a year or more into the future? How might it translate into risk for future disease recurrence? Does it have any bearing on physical health states at all? Also, would the same hold for people with different types of cancer, or if the interventions were undertaken closer to the time of diagnosis and treatment.


Carlson, L. E., Beattie, T. L., Giese-Davis, J., Faris, P., Tamagawa, R., Fick, L. J., Degelman, E. S. and Speca, M. (2014), Mindfulness-based cancer recovery and supportive-expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors. Cancer. doi: 10.1002/cncr.29063

Last Updated on November 4, 2014 by Marie Benz MD FAAD