New frame of mind

30 May 2016

A Deakin PhD student is trialling an on-line mindfulness program for melanoma patients.

It might once have been dismissed as “New Age” pseudo-science, but “mindfulness” is increasingly being accepted by the medical establishment – because it makes a difference.

Deakin University PhD student Lahiru Russell began her career as a biochemist managing clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies in Geneva, but her path led her to pursue the drug-free “mindfulness” approach as a means of helping patients with melanoma to manage stress-related aspects of the disease.

Mindfulness and meditation have always been part of Ms Russell’s personal life. But since she started working in psycho-oncology research at the Peter MacCallum Centre, she realised that this approach could also benefit people with cancer. 

Ms Russell is currently designing an innovative online mindfulness intervention for patients with melanoma, as part of her PhD within Deakin’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, in collaboration with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Monash University.

The project is breaking new ground for Australia, and, if successful, could be used as a resource for all cancer patients – and people with other conditions – to help manage the psychological impact of their condition.

 “Mindfulness is about being aware of our own thoughts and feelings without getting carried away by them. Through practice, individuals learn to engage and focus on what is really happening in each moment of their day. Meditation is an important component as it improves the way we control our attention” she explained.

The approach is growing in popularity throughout the western world, and was initially introduced in clinical settings by Professor John Kabat-Zinn (University of Massachusetts, USA) to help reduce stress in patients with back pain. Clinical findings are backed up by neuroscientific research that suggests that mindfulness meditation might cause changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness.

In her work at Peter Mac, Ms Russell observed a growing need to help patients deal with psychological distress, ironically, in part, as a result of improved treatment outcomes.

“Over the past five years there has been tremendous progress in the way melanoma is treated, particularly with targeted and immune therapies, resulting in improved survival rates and more hope for patients,” she said.

“However, patients still experience side effects and have to live with uncertainty, including fear that the cancer will return, if they are in remission. About 30 per cent of people diagnosed with cancer experience clinically diagnosed anxiety or depression, while many others still have their quality of life affected for many years after their treatment.”

For the initial phase of her project, Ms Russell conducted a preliminary study to discover what people knew about meditation, to inform the design of her online intervention. The next stage will be a pilot intervention program with around 75 patients at the Peter Mac. She hopes this will pave the way for a larger randomised control trial in 2018.

She chose to target melanoma patients, initially, due to its high incidence in Australia – affecting both genders and people of all ages.

“Melanoma is the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in Australia. It is most common in Australia for people aged 15 to 39, and continues to be a major cause of cancer in people over 55,” she said.

“The online program will allow participants to experience meditation from the comfort of their own home, and explore what works best for them. Only five to ten minutes twice a day will improve their ability to focus, which will help them stay or become more mindful throughout the day. We want to find out if this program can help to reduce stress levels, improve mood, and cope with their fears for the future.

“Of course, not all stress is bad. It does help people perform or meet a deadline, but everyone needs to be able to turn it off. Understandably, most people find that difficult when they have been diagnosed with cancer.”

Deakin University PhD student Lahiru Russell is trialling mindfulness to reduce stress for melanoma patients. Deakin University PhD student Lahiru Russell is trialling mindfulness to reduce stress for melanoma patients.

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