Connecting mindfulness and breast cancer in the treatment pathway

Connecting mindfulness and breast cancer in the treatment pathway

6 minute watch
Throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month we're speaking to a number of people who've been affected by breast cancer, hearing about their personal experiences and the breast cancer issues they feel passionately about.

We were recently joined by Dr Emilia Dauway MD, Clinical Director of Surgery at Hervey Bay Hospital in Australia, Co-inventor of the radioseed and Founder of Restore More – an organisation dedicated to providing patients with the best resources to improve their treatment options.

Dr Dauway is also author of the book Live Fearlessly: Liberating your life after breast cancer’, which focuses on the power of mindfulness for patients diagnosed with breast cancer. She reveals how patients can adopt the practice of mindfulness and explains what the main benefits are.

Q) Where did your own journey into mindfulness and yoga begin?

ED: I’ve been practicing yoga personally off and on for years, but I wanted to learn more about the philosophy and the active practice of self awareness – which is mindfulness.

Straight away, I noticed within myself that I became more calm and more responsive instead of reactive. I really felt a lot of mental, as well as physical, benefits from yoga and I wanted to share those benefits with others, but particularly my patients.

Q) So what inspired you to connect mindfulness and yoga with breast cancer?

ED: We know that mindset has a significant impact on mental and physical well-being. In my practice, I realized that many patients were living silently with fear of recurrence and death, long after they’d successfully completed treatment and survived breast cancer. That’s really not any way for any one of us to live.  

"So although all of us are going to experience significant struggles and challenges in our life, we can't change the fact that we’re going to experience stress."

But we can change how we respond or allow stress to affect us. So there’s many practices within yoga and many limbs to yoga. I think mindfulness and the philosophy of yoga – of Self-awareness – can be a very powerful practice.

Q) What mindfulness strategies do you recommend for your patients?

ED: One of the things that’s important is that patients practice acceptance as one of the pillars of mindfulness, and acknowledge the fear that they feel. A lot of times, they may lack awareness of how their mind and their body is feeling when they’re fearful or under stress.

So start to create body awareness, which can be done with something as simple as a body scan. Understand what that stress feels like in your body. It could feel like breathlessness or muscle tension. Whatever it is, acknowledge it rising within.

We practice those techniques in the office when patients are in the clinic. I teach them a 3 minute body scan, which is something that they can book in their day, they can wake up in the morning and practice it. They can anchor their day.


Q) What are the key benefits of mindfulness to patients?

ED: I think where we fall short is the quality of life after treatment ends, which really lends itself to full recovery. So employing these techniques, there’s many benefits.

One is as simple as reducing cortisol levels and not having significant stress on the body and mind for extended periods of time. That is something that we all would benefit from in the world today.

It’s an opportunity to re-evaluate your life and to say, this is what really is important to me. Whereas there’s a lot of people that are not really conscious about how they want to live the rest of their life. They lack that awareness.

Q) How can healthcare professionals apply mindfulness to their practices, and where is there work to do?

ED: There’s a lot of health care disparity particularly with delivery of breast cancer care in regional areas.

That frustrated me and led me to develop a non-profit called Restore More to provide better access, so that all patients – regardless of race or geographic location – have access to the same level of modern breast cancer treatment options.

One of the things that I learned is that regional patients are more likely to be only offered a mastectomy and less likely to be offered breast reconstruction and I really wanted to address that issue.

"I think it's important that we examine our own biases and practice another pillar of mindfulness, which is nonjudgment"

This means just being an impartial witness and observer without judging something as a decision being right or wrong. It’s something I think is important that we all need to identify as health care professionals, , so we can deliver equal care to all people.

Q) What's your main aim for Restore More over the next 12 months?

ED: We are focused on just educating patients to make an informed decision instead of a fear-based decision. So that they understand all of their breast cancer treatment options, and then they can make an empowered choice.

We use this example, when patients are struggling with the decision. I say if you had a tumor on your leg and I told you, you can keep your leg and I could just remove the tumor, or we can remove your leg and you could have a prosthetic, what would you choose? Oh and by the way, you have two legs, so do you want to remove the other one too?

That’s really what they’re doing when they’re choosing Mastectomy versus bilateral mastectomies.

"We don't have to remove the breast in many patients because we have such modern techniques like oncoplastic mammoplasty."

We have neoadjuvant chemotherapy that we’re using more and more for various tumor biologies. So I try to advocate for breast preservation inappropriate in most cases, if it’s appropriate. Restore more is really about educating patients to make an informed decision and empower choice.

Interested to find out more about Mindfulness? Read this useful guide here for more information