Compassion meditation: UArizona researchers to study impact on breast cancer survivors, caregivers

The University of Arizona is conducting a study of compassion meditation, which is being used to help treat anxiety, depression and sense of isolation in breast-cancer survivors and their partners. “It’s a meditation that is about our feelings for other people, as well as our feelings about ourselves,” said Thaddeus Pace, the principal investigator. (Photo illustration by Paula Soria/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The University of Arizona will use a $1.7 million grant for breast-cancer survivors and their partners to practice “compassion meditation,” researching whether the program can ease their anxiety, depression and sense of isolation.

The National Cancer Institute’s grant will allow researchers to study whether the program, known as Cognitively Based Compassion Meditation, works to ease the emotional turmoil that often arises in patients and their caregivers, said Thaddeus Pace, principal investigator.

Researchers are trying to determine whether the method helps release stress on the immune system of survivors and their caregivers. A 2015 report on a pilot study conducted with a group of breast-cancer survivors showed improvements in their mindfulness, and ability to embrace the present moment without worrying about the cancer recurring.

Pace explained another study, in 2019, indicated a possibility “there may be something important about survivors bringing on partners who they see day in and day out.”

Thaddeus Pace poses for a photo in front of a sign for the UArizona College of Nursing.

Thaddeus Pace is principal investigator for a research study into cognitively based compassion meditation. He said it is designed to strengthen empathy. (Photo courtesy of University of Arizona Health Sciences Media)

“We have gotten sort of positive reactions from survivors and partners who have taken part in the research with us,” Pace said. “They would recommend this activity to their friends and maybe even other cancer survivors and their families.”

Cognitively based compassion meditation is designed to strengthen empathy, Pace said.

“It’s a meditation that is about our feelings for other people, as well as our feelings about ourselves,” he said.

According to the University of Arizona College of Nursing, the method focuses on mindfulness and how someone connects with another person.

When the study gets underway in May, participants will attend a weekly session online for eight weeks. More studies will be done in the late summer, and then another group next spring.

“We’re hoping to reach out to survivors and partners across the state, and really across the United States,” Pace said.

Sally Dodds, an instructor who has practiced meditation for more than 20 years, said the compassion sessions, which previously were in-person at UArizona, start with mental exercises. The survivors and caregivers are told to sit on a cushion or chair and ground their feet to the earth. The instructor then guides them to focus on their breath, to eliminate random thoughts. After the sessions are complete, participants are encouraged to meditate on their own three times a week using the pre-recorded audio recordings given to them at the end of each week.

“It’s about self awareness and observing how it works – taking a look internally at how your mind operates,” Dodds said. “These techniques will help you make decisions about the habits you have in your thinking.”

When the participants show up for the next meditation session, instructors will collect feedback on what did and did not work.

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“CBCT (Cognitively Based Compassion Training) starts off with helping people to focus their attention and be mindful in the present moment,” Pace said. “Then, after those skills in the first couple weeks, you start to explore these concepts of self compassion and how you react to yourself in a social world.”

“We wanted to focus on breast cancer survivors because they go through a difficult process and are left with tremendous challenges,” Dodds said.

Dodds recalls a woman in her class who had just gone through treatment and was struggling to hold down a job and manage three kids, straining her marriage.

“She came into class and said, ‘I had the best thing happen while on my way to work the other morning. My husband called and said, “I just wanted to tell you that since you’ve been meditating, how much easier it’s been to be around you, and how much I really love you,”’” Dodds said.

The benefits of compassion meditation, Dodds said, radiate onto the people around them.

Alexandra Aley aleks-AN-druh A-lee (she/her)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Alexandra Aley expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Aley has interned as a writer for Destination I Do magazine and is currently interning for the Gordon C. James public relations firm in Phoenix.

Paula Soria pah-OO-la SOH-rhih-ah (she/her/hers)
Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Paula Soria expects to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Soria, who is assigned to Cronkite Noticias this semester as a visual journalist, has interned at Arizona PBS producing the show “Arizona Horizon.”