While people facing the prospect of end-stage cancer may want to focus on anything but the present moment, new research suggests that paying attention, on purpose, increases quality of life for both patients and their caregivers.

A pilot study from the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Medicine explored whether mindfulness can enhance the ability of patients and families to consider and discuss emotionally challenging topics.

“I have seen too many times over the past two decades the tragic effects of patients and caregivers not having timely conversations about goals of care and end-of-life preferences,” said Regenstrief Institute investigator Shelley A. Johns, PsyD, the study’s lead author. “These conversations are often delayed until there is a medical emergency and patients are too ill to make complex decisions. Family members then struggle to know what their loved one would want.”

Twelve patient-family caregiver pairs took part in the study “Mindfully Optimizing Delivery of End-of-Life (MODEL) Care.” A trained mindfulness teacher led participants through several practices during two-hour sessions over the course of six weeks, including the body scan, sitting meditation and loving kindness meditation.

The study found that MODEL Care successfully supported patients and their caregivers in thinking and talking about the care they want to receive if they become unable to speak for themselves.

Corresponding author Ann H. Cottingham, MA, MAR, said, “We found that MODEL Care improved ability to cope, lowered emotional reactivity and enhanced ability to respond to issues that incited emotion. It strengthened the patient-caregiver relationship and communication with each other. MODEL Care also improved both patient and family caregiver communication with the physicians caring for the patient.”

Caregivers say they saw changes in their loved ones’ ability to cope with their disease after the mindfulness training, and one patient reported using the practices to “meet the pain differently so it doesn’t consume me.” Caregivers also reported benefits to themselves, including finding “peace” and an increased ability to “cope with the stress for cancer.”

Both researchers say practicing mindfulness could have benefits for everyone.

According to Johns, future research could build on the findings of this pilot study to explore the depth of the relationship between mindfulness practice, the ability to communicate about care preferences, the ease with which patients and caregivers talk about the sensitive topics and the concordance between expressed care preferences and treatments received.

Listen to the researchers speak more in-depth about the findings of their studies: