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Mar 18, 2015 — Everything about cancer is stressful, from the diagnosis, to the treatment—even the recovery is stressful. Dr. Paul Thielking runs a mindfulness program to help cancer patients get out of their stressful mindset and learn to relax. He shares some mindfulness and meditation tips that can help you control your stress. For more information on Dr. Thielking’s program, visit this webpage.

Interview

Interviewer: How mindfulness can help manage stress for cancer patients. That's next on The Scope.

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Interviewer: Everything about cancer is stressful, from the diagnosis to going through the treatments, even the recovery. Dr. Paul Thielking offers an eight week mind body skills group for cancer patients at Huntsman Cancer Institute's Wellness Survivorship Center. And I want to talk to you today for a moment about using mindfulness to control stress, because a lot of times after a cancer diagnosis, people are doing all the things that they are supposed to be doing. They're doing what the doctor told them, they're taking the medications, but they still feel like they're stressed and not in control. Is that not uncommon?

Dr. Thielking: I think that's very common with cancer patients. You get diagnosed with a scary illness. You do all the things that your doctor tells you to do. Maybe you are taking medication and yet you're still overwhelmed. Maybe you feel stressed, maybe you're not functioning at the level that you're used to functioning. Maybe you're noticing that the stress of going through cancer is affecting relationships and other areas of your life. And you might feel overwhelmed or you just don't have control or anything else you can do.

Interviewer: Yeah, stress can be pretty detrimental to all aspects of your life, I'd imagine.

Dr. Thielking: They really can. They can affect you emotionally obviously, psychologically, mentally and physically. We know that when people get stressed, things like pain, get worse.

Interviewer: Yeah, so what are some of the things then that somebody could do to help reduce the stress and maybe feel like they are a little bit more in control?

Dr. Thielking: So there are some things that people can do that are called mindfulness techniques, or mindfulness exercises, which have been around for a long time. They are things that people can do in a relatively short period of time. That can help people get out of their worrying or stressed out minds, and just kind of be more present anchored here in the moment with whatever is going on.

Interviewer: And in my stressed mind though. I'm having a hard time believing that.

Dr. Thielking: Yeah.

Interviewer: You find that to be common?

Dr. Thielking: And it might be hard to believe. So a lot of what we're doing with mindfulness is we're changing old habits maybe of worry, or getting fixated on the future or what we're worried might happen to us. And we're kind of changing some of those thinking habits and there are some specific ways of doing that, that people can learn and do on their own.

Interviewer: When people come to your course, at what point are they at? That they've actually now signed up with this course, they're coming to it, they've made an eight week commitment.

Dr. Thielking: People come from all different stages. Some people have just been diagnosed with cancer, some people might actually have been treated and are cancer free, but they just haven't bounced back in their lives, and recovered to functioning at the level they're used to. So we have people from all over the spectrum.

I'd say the common denominator is they're all coping with stress of one form or another. Sometimes you've been treated for cancer, and you're stressed because you're just not able to get back to working like you did before. Or you've got chronic pain or you have fatigue and you can't do the things that you used to be able to do. And that's stressful.

Interviewer: Sure. So as I said in my stressed out mind, I have a hard time believing that maybe mindfulness might help to help. Do you find that skepticism when people come to the class as well? Or are most people pretty open to it?

Dr. Thielking: People actually show up to the class in general are pretty open to it. They've overcome their skepticism at least to the point where they are willing to come and give it a try.

Interviewer: Sure.

Dr. Thielking: I think some people are skeptical and doubt that they can do something as simple as focusing on their breath or other mindfulness practices that are really going to make a difference. What we find though is when people stick through the process and actually put those techniques and tools into practice they really do get a lot of benefit.

Interviewer: Tell me about one of those transformational stories. Certainly you have a couple.

Dr. Thielking: Yeah, for example there is a woman who has come to our group and was actually doing pretty well from a cancer standpoint, but as I mentioned earlier, she had chronic anxiety and stress related to not getting back to functioning at the level she used to. She also had pain. She was a woman that had had breast cancer, and she was having some chronic pain issues related surgery that she had. And was just feeling overwhelmed. She came to our course. She really wholeheartedly put the things that she learned into practice in her daily life. And it really had a transformational experience for her.

She wasn't necessarily able to get back to doing the things that she used to do, but she was able to accept and just cope with that reality a lot better and with a lot more piece of mind. In fact she came back and has joined us in subsequent groups that we've done and there have been people that have done that too, as a refresher as they've gone on.

Interviewer: As you go over the course over the eight weeks, can you notice a noticeable difference in some people in just how they're dealing with life and stress and the whole thing?

Dr. Thielking: I think initially oftentimes, people come in and they are quite stressed. And even maybe after that first session or two that we do, they're still struggling with that. And then by the end those last few weeks, you can really feel even when people walk in the room, they're able to exhale, sit down, and really get into whatever the exercises we're doing on that particular day. And I think you see real change with people and even over the course of six weeks.

Interviewer: So I'm thinking that maybe somebody that is listening to this, has just decided that maybe this might be something that they want to try. Where should they start?

Dr. Thielking: There's a couple of different options. Up at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital, we have a learning centre where there are a variety of CDs that people can checkout and take home for a few weeks. And several of them are introduction CDs to mindfulness practices. You can get on YouTube or just do a web search for mindfulness and find recorded, guided meditation mindfulness exercises.

So it's a click away. If you're on your computer, you can go to a place like the Huntsman or even the city library and find introductory CDs. If you want some help just kind of getting started and some guidance through the process.

Interviewer: As the expert in this field. Is that an okay way to start? Or do you need somebody there that's helping you through the process?

Dr. Thielking: I think it's better to have one-on-one or a group interaction where you're getting some guidance like that. But I think the next best thing is to find a recorded CD from somebody that really does have some expertise. And I think those can be really effective, especially if the idea of coming up to the Learning Center or going to your library or if you're not too computer savvy, if those things don't appeal to you.

Interviewer: Where could somebody get more information about your course? Whether it be the eight week group course, or you also do one-on-one from what I understand.

Dr. Thielking: Up at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital there is a Wellness Center on the first floor. And they have descriptions of all the courses that they offer, including mine. They have information about the Learning Center. In addition to myself, there are other people that are available that can teach these kinds of tools.

Interviewer: Any final thoughts? Anything I forgot to ask you about or anything you feel compelled to say?

Dr. Thielking: The main message is, I think these kinds of practices can help reduce stress especially if you're doing everything else that you can, and are looking for some other way to get a sense of control if you're feeling stress or overwhelmed by what you're going through.

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