Meditation as Cancer Therapy

Dr Swami Karmananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

In a paper entitled "Meditation: a psychological approach to cancer treatment",*1 a leading Australian doctor and psychiatrist Dr Ainslie Meares, MD, FRANZCP, DPM, has called for investigation into the efficacy of direct attempts to influence the growth of cancer by psychological means. He suggests, from his own research that a psychological approach, utilising meditation, may prove effective either alone or in combination with existing forms of cancer therapy, including surgery, chemotherapy and irradiation.

Rationale for meditation therapy

There are several areas of research evidence that suggest the growth of cancer is associated with a relative failure of the body's immune defence system. In fact, it is on this basis that many new researches in the continuing drug war against cancer are aimed at altering, enhancing or stimulating the immune system, using a variety of different agents. Dr Meares points out an approach to cancer therapy through the immune system which was largely overlooked.

It is known that cortisone (the main steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex in response to stress) has an inhibitory effect on the immune reaction. This is why cortisone is used so widely by doctors. Cortisone injections help to relieve inflammatory response in allergic asthma; cortisone tablets usually remove the crippling inflammatory joint pain of rheumatoid arthritis, and cortisone creams aim at damping down the inflammatory reaction and itch due to skin infections and rashes. However, there area number of serious side effects of prolonged use of steroid therapy, including atrophy of the adrenal glands; the body's own cortisone supplies cease to function when we provide an adequate long term external steroid source. Also predictably, depression of the response leads to a higher incidence of cancer development.

If cortisone inhibits the immune reaction, then meditation, which can profoundly lower the levels of gluco-corticoids, like cortisone, in the blood*2 will predictably enhance the immune response, thereby rendering the individual more competent to resist cancer development and to fight any pre-existing cancer in his body. The gluco-corticoids are secreted into the bloodstream in response to intra-psychic or environmental stresses. Therefore Dr Meares suggests:

"If the reduction of anxiety through meditation is sufficiently profound and sufficiently sustained, there will come about a state of affairs in which the host's capacity to cope with the cancer cells is significantly enhanced."

Dr Meares suggests that the immune system can be thus bolstered in cancer patients through intensive meditation. However, he emphasises that the reduction of anxiety must be much more profound and much more sustained than that which is ordinarily effective in allaying most common psychosomatic symptoms.

Where does meditation take a cancer patient?

Dr Meares suggests that cancer begins with a maladaptive response, either psychological or physiological, earlier in life, which has become established. Successful meditation, he claims, will carry the practitioner back to the state of affairs which existed prior to this maladaptive response. Only then can a healthy adaptive response become established which leaves no foothold for cancer in the body.

That is, meditation allows a form of ablation or 'wiping the slate clean'. This occurs as meditation reduces the level of anxiety and the patient undergoes an atavistic regression of mental functioning, which is accompanied by a similar regression of physiological function. Dr Meares believes his patients go back into their earlier life and experience (atavism), ablating their past maladaptive responses, thus enabling the normal homeostatic mechanisms of the body to re-establish more healthy, adaptive response patterns.

Dr Meares reports that a profound reaction occurs in his successfully treated cancer patients as meditation therapy progresses. He observed that they come to have a slightly different, but profoundly significant experience of life. To quote him: "Living comes to have a meaning that it previously lacked". This change is not primarily a philosophical or ethical one, and is not verbalised by patients, but is first observed in subtle changes in the patient's behaviour.

Similarly, relatives and friends begin to comment that the patient has in some way changed himself, becoming a better person, exhibiting more understanding. Common reports are: 'When things tend to go wrong he no longer gets upset', and 'He is not worried about the cancer in the same way that he was before'.

According to Meares, these outward manifestations are the exteriorization of inner changes in the individual's psychological, philosophical and spiritual integration. It is this change in the level of consciousness of the patient, generated through meditation, which reflects an understanding of his environment and his illness in a more universal, less self-centred way and seems to be the crucial turning point in an individual's struggle with cancer. The cancer patient's awareness changes. He is no longer a passive victim of a fatal disease, but becomes aware of the active role he or she plays in getting sick and getting well again.

Meares records the next step as one in which the patient becomes more interested in his changed experience of life than in his cancer. The relief of his cancer becomes a side effect of the greater experience, 'a bonus that may eventuate, although it is not the object of his everyday striving'. It is in this state of mind that a really profound and sustained reduction of anxiety comes about.

The technique

The guided method of meditation which is used by Meares appears to be a combination of kaya sthairyam (bodily stillness), mantra japa and yoga nidra. Trained in psychotherapy he appears to lead his patients into a deeper, pre-logical level of being, identical to the state of awareness experienced in yoga nidra.

He encourages his patients to sit in a posture of slight discomfort, for an hour or more per day. As meditation proceeds, physical discomfort is also transcended.

Dr Meares leads the meditation of his patients in such a way as to avoid communication at a logical or intellectual level which only prevents regression of awareness. He communicates by reassuring words, sounds and phrases which have no logical content in themselves and therefore do not evoke logical activity in the minds of the patients. He utilises UN-verbalised phonation in the form of 'umms' and 'ahs' made in long relaxed expiration, influencing the consciousness in the same way as a mantra and conveying meaning to the patient at a prelogical level. The communication and transmission may go beyond this also, for Meares claims: "Meaning which cannot be conveyed in words is communicated by thought. As I move among the patients I too, participate in their experience, and the patients by subliminal cues pick up something of my own relaxed state of mind."

Results and case histories

Meares has treated 17 patients suffering with very advanced or terminal cancer, over a 2½ year period. They had either had no orthodox medical treatment at all, or had undergone full courses of conventional therapy with cytotoxic drugs and irradiation for some months previously, and had subsequently resumed a downhill course.

It is clear that Meares' patients belonged to the group for whom no more could be done. Of the 17 patients, 10 have since died, but in each case their span of life far exceeded the prognosis given by experienced oncologists (cancer therapists).

  • Case 1: A woman near death with widespread secondary cancer and ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdomen due to liver failure), following a primary breast cancer, had a dramatic remission of her condition as she continued with meditation therapy. She even gave press and television interviews on how she beat cancer. However, while Meares was overseas, she changed her pattern of meditation, and had a relapse of her cancer. When she resumed her original meditation practice, as instructed, she gained a second remission which lasted for another 12 months, but relapsed and died quite suddenly when she became involved with someone advertising apparently miraculous cures. It would appear that a remission is obtained and relapse held at bay only at the cost of relentless truth to oneself and one's practice.
  • Case 2: A woman with an abdomen resembling a full term pregnancy, was proved at laparotomy (exploratory surgery) to have widespread metastatic cancer, and was given a prognosis of two to three weeks of life. With meditation she maintained an active but restricted life for a further 12 months.
  • Case 3: A woman undergoing intermittent irradiation for Hodgkin's disease (cancer of the lymph glands) over a 4 year period had continued to go downhill. She chose to discontinue treatment and rely solely on meditation, and made a dramatic improvement. She was well when last seen 10 months after commencing meditation.
    Dr Meares has successfully combined meditation with continuing minimal irradiation or cytotoxic drug therapy in other patients, following on the pioneering work of Texas radiotherapist and meditation therapist, Dr O.C. Simonton.*3 This is exemplified in the following case history.
  • Case 4: After 4 years active cytotoxic treatment of lymphosarcoma (another form of cancer of lymphatic tissues), a 34 year old man was given a prognosis of 12 months to live. He chose to discontinue radiation treatment and to rely solely on meditation and made a dramatic improvement for 10 months. Then at a time of psychological stress his condition began to re-manifest. He underwent a little cytotoxic drug treatment, and is now well and active at time of publication, two years later.
    It appears that meditation, in combination with conventional therapies is often the most suitable course, where either meditation alone, or conventional therapy alone, could not tip the balance. The next case seems to bear this out.
  • Case 5: Another man of 34 years had a massive secondary cancer in the neck, resulting from a primary lung cancer. He refused conventional treatment, as he was told it would do no more than prolong his life by a few weeks. Using meditation therapy, he remained ambulatory for a further 5 months until he developed the fear that the tumour would threaten his breathing. At this stage, he underwent a course of irradiation therapy and was active 6 months later.
  • Case 6: A 25 year old man had a mid-thigh amputation for osteogenic sarcoma (a particularly lethal form of cancer). When he was examined by Meares, he already possessed massive secondary cancers in the lung, pelvis and ribs. Although dabbling in many forms of treatment, he resolutely continued to meditate for at least one hour a day. Two years and 3 months after his initial presentation, the bony cancers on his ribs, which were the size of golf balls, had completely disappeared and his chest X-rays showed a remarkable improvement in lung secondaries. At that time he embarked on an overseas trip.
  • Case 7: This case is interesting for although papilloma of the vocal cord is not a cancer itself, it is well recognised as a premalignant or potentially cancerous condition.
    A 39 year old man had recurrent papillomas of his vocal cord surgically removed 6 times in the previous 6 years. Since adopting intensive meditation more than 4 years ago, he has had no further recurrence.


Dr Meares does not claim to have proved the efficacy of meditation as a cancer therapy in terms which are scientifically acceptable to his colleagues in the medical world. He states:

"In the evolution of something new, there must first cornea stage of formulating ideas and communicating our incomplete results to our fellows, so that we can exchange views with others who may be interested in the same area.

Statistical analysis and objective proof must wait until more studies have been carried out. However, it seems clear that intensive meditation can beneficially influence the growth of cancer, for those who are willing to earnestly attempt this form of self-therapy."

It remains to be seen whether or not cancer, can be completely cured in this way. It appears that the limit is often a self-imposed one, and that perhaps we have within us the ability to cure cancer and many other defects of our bodies and minds, if we are prepared to pay the price of living a life of total responsibility for ourselves, our health, and our destiny.


*1. A. Meares, "Meditation: a psychological approach to cancer treatment", 'The Practitioner', 222: 119-122, 1979.

*2. R. Jevning, A.F. Wilson, W.R. Smith, "The transcendental meditation technique, adreno-cortical activity, and implications for stress", 'Experientia', 34 (5): 618-619, 1978.

*3. O.C. Simonton & S. Simonton, 'J. Tramp. Psychol.' 7: 29, 1975.