Mindfulness: Mind-Body Therapy

Learn How Mindfulness Mind-Body Therapy Can Help Pediatric Cancer Patients

By: Rachel Baumann, M.A.
Emily Winter, M.A., S.Y.C., N.C.S.P.

Mindfulness can help pediatric cancer patients
“Visualize Your Favorite Place to Be” is a great grounding exercise to use during moments of stress or anxiety.

What is mindfulness? How does it work? And, how exactly does it relate to cancer care for pediatric patients?

Mindfulness is a mind-body form of therapy that connects physical health to mental well-being.  It’s a technique in which an individual strives to remain in the present moment, not worried about the future, nor dwelling in the past. Mindfulness helps children (and adults!) remain focused on what is happening in the present: cognitively and emotionally, as well as keeping individuals tuned into their senses. (1)  

The Importance of Mindfulness During Treatment

Mindfulness has a dual purpose: prevention and preparation as well as crisis response and in-the-moment calming.  It is a self-care practice which helps children relax and decreases internalizing behaviors such as worry or sadness. It can also help reduce externalizing behaviors like behavioral outbursts or attention concerns (2).  Thus, when a stressful situation presents itself such as treatment, scans, or surgery, children may be more likely to use these strategies to decrease their stress in a tense and otherwise uncomfortable moment (3). 

Practicing mindfulness may be a beneficial strategy to use with your child to help her stay calm while her port is accessed, when she has lab tests, MRIs, CAT scans or is spending long hours in the hospital waiting for test results. Not only will it help pass the time, but more importantly it will help her to remain calm.

The Importance of Meditation When Treatment is Over

So just why is it important for children who experience the difficult journey of cancer to try and learn mindfulness?  When the journey begins, children and families yearn for the time when cancer is a part of the past and treatment is over. However, research suggests that there are also long-term psychological effects for survivors. This is why mindfulness is an excellent tool that can be practiced to mediate some of the psychological effects (4). 

The transition after treatment brings significant stress as well.  You and your child may be anxious about the cancer returning or wonder what kind of treatments may or may not be available if the cancer were to return. In fact, it is possible for survivors to struggle with post-traumatic stress and social competence well after treatment has finished. (5) In terms of post traumatic stress, your child may have distressing images of what it was like to go through cancer, which is why mindfulness can be so beneficial to learn. Mindfulness can take your child out of the scary moment of the past and bring her to the present, a reminder that she is safe now. 

Mindfulness Helps Increase Coping Abilities

A number of studies have demonstrated that mindfulness-based practice decreases anxiety and stress while simultaneously increasing a child’s coping abilities and quality of life during cancer treatment (6).  For instance, many pediatric oncology outpatient programs incorporate mindfulness in their programming, including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Montefiore Medical Center, Noogieland (part of Gilda’s Club New York City), and Ivy Child International. 

Helpful Child-friendly Mindfulness Strategies

Ready to get started? There are many different ways to practice mindfulness. We’ve selected some of our favorites for you to try. You can practice these anywhere and at any time.

Once your child is ready, read aloud these visualization scripts in a loving, soothing voice. Follow a gentle pace, pausing often as you read each prompt.

Two Visualization Strategies

House Visualization: Pick a house that is of particular comfort to you. It could be your personal home, grandparents, or another family member’s.  Imagine yourself walking into the house and try to visualize every detail of the room. What does the floor feel like? Is it soft, hard, or slippery? What does the artwork on the wall look like? Think about the furniture, the lights in the room, the smell.  Once you have remembered all you can about that room, then visualize yourself walking into the next room. Try and remember every detail of each room until you have walked through the entire home. 

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Grounding Technique: Visualize your favorite place to be. Is it on vacation, outside in nature, at a specific home or building? Try and think of five things you see, four things you could touch, three things you might hear, two things you might smell, one thing you might taste.  This activity can also be done in real time as a grounding exercise during moments of stress or anxiety. (7).

Two More Strategies

You can also try a more structured mindfulness exercise such as these strategies. Once your child is ready, read aloud the script in a loving, soothing voice. Follow a gentle pace, pausing after each prompt. Once your child has completed the task read the next prompt.

Starfish Breath: Hold your hand up.  Start tracing the outline of your hand with your opposite pointer finger. When moving up a finger, breath in. When moving down the other side of the finger, breath out.  Practice the breathing in and out on each finger and repeat as many times as needed. 

Going on a Picnic: Pretend you are going on a picnic with your child.  Ask her to think of something to bring that starts with the letter A (apple), B (beans), C (Carrots), etc. until you have made it to the end of the alphabet. The sillier the items, the better! 

Great Web Resources

Be sure to visit these four great resources for additional information. What’s more you’ll find many new ideas and exercises to try!

Smiling Mind: Free guided meditations right on your smartphone or laptop. Filter different meditations by child’s age as well as length of meditation and skill level (beginner, intermediate, advanced). 

Calm.com: Guided meditations, breathing exercises, and visual mindfulness activities all available for download on the app. 

Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame Street: Meditation for little ones teaches deep breathing and visual mindfulness exercises. This is especially great for younger children aged two to five. 

Dreamy Kid: Free downloadable app and web-platform specifically for children aged 3 to 18. This app features guided meditations, affirmations, sleep stories, and stretching activities. 

Foot Notes and References