The Science of Mindful Cancer Care

Even before she was named the Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology at the University of Calgary in 2007, Dr. Linda Carlson was passionate about helping cancer patients cope with the disease’s psychological, behavioural, emotional and social side-effects, specifically through mindfulness

By: Debby Waldman

Photograph of Dr. Linda Carlson.

When Dr. Linda Carlson was hired as an assistant professor in oncology at the University of Calgary in 2001, she had already published the first of nearly 250 peer-reviewed papers currently listed on her CV about the benefits of mindfulness meditation for cancer patients.

“I’ve always had a personal practice of meditation and yoga,” says Carlson, who has a PhD in clinical health psychology and is a professor in the department of oncology at the University of Calgary.

Carlson was interested in how thoughts and feelings could impact hormones and the immune and nervous systems. She knew mindfulness programs in the U.S. were helping people with anxiety and pain. Her goal was to convince Alberta’s publicly funded health-care system to provide therapies such as mindfulness and yoga as part of standard care for cancer patients. Carlson believed that conducting a well-designed study would bolster her case.

“Some doctors think that it’s all hocus-pocus or new-agey,” Carlson says. “My approach was to do rigorous research, become well-respected by the conventional providers as [part of] a discipline that is scientific, and slowly keep adding evidence-based therapies as the evidence mounts.”

Today, as the director of the Alberta Complementary Therapy and Integrative Oncology (ACTION) Centre, Carlson has realized those goals, and then some. Launched in 2018 at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, the ACTION Centre is a partnership between Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary.

The ACTION Centre is the first of its kind in Canada, a publicly funded hub devoted to integrative oncology. This patient-centred, evidence-based field of cancer care uses mind-and-body practices and natural products and/or lifestyle modifications from traditional medicines alongside conventional cancer treatments.

The ACTION Centre acts as a base for clinical programs, clinical trials, educational programs, and training for health-care providers, students and researchers across Alberta Health Services, the University of Calgary and the community.

Patients referred to the centre’s new integrative oncology clinic pilot project can access what Carlson calls “one-stop shopping” for integrative oncology services. The clinic offers personalized, patient-centred, safe and culturally sensitive recommendations using complementary and integrative treatments.

“It’s meant to be a place where people can come and find credible information and resources and connect with what’s offered,” she says.

Carlson is also responsible for a significant milestone at the new Calgary Cancer Centre. When it opens to the public in 2024, it will have a designated integrative oncology space, the first cancer centre in Canada to do so. Patients can access treatment rooms with tables for acupuncture, massage and reiki; a yoga therapy room; an area for creative therapies including art; and treatment rooms for mind-body therapies, including relaxation, imagery and hypnosis. Carlson was involved in every aspect of the Calgary Cancer Centre’s integrative oncology space, from the operational and functional planning and design, to picking the furniture and ordering all the supplies. And, through the ACTION centre, Carlson will determine how the space is used.

“I’ve always had this vision of a full- service integrative oncology program in a publicly funded system that was seamlessly integrated with conventional care,” Carlson says. “This is going to help cancer patients throughout Alberta — and serve as a model I hope the rest of the country will eventually follow.”

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