Saybrook instructor Carrie Phelps addresses mind-body medicine for Holistic Cancer Care

Carrie Phelps, Ph.D. Saybrook instructor

Carrie Phelps, Ph.D. Saybrook instructor

Carrie Phelps, Ph.D., BCC, CWWS, is a cancer survivor and an integrative wellness entrepreneur. She has over 25 years of experience in the wellness and integrative medicine profession. She currently serves as adjunct faculty at Saybrook University’s College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences. She also serves on faculty for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and is board certified coach. Carrie was recently appointed to the National Wellness Institute Board of Directors. Her mission to co-create the next evolution of health promotion that energizes well-being, expands potential, fosters fulfillment, and enriches lives.

Mind-body medicine

Mind-body medicine is an aspect of an integrative healthcare model that includes various evidence-based healing modalities that utilize the mind’s capacity to improve the body’s function, and vice versa. The science of mind-body medicine shows how the workings of the mind—to include emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes—directly affects biological health.

Mind-body practices can easily be self-administered in the form of self-care. This is one of the many advantages of mind-body medicine; it is readily accessible to everyone, self-administered, inexpensive, and effective. Mind-body medicine includes self-care practices such as relaxation, meditation, exercise, diet, biofeedback, visual imagery, self-hypnosis, and self-expression.

Mind-body skills for cancer care

Many people with cancer desire to be an active participant in their cancer care. Having readily available self-care tools that help those with cancer manage stress, improve immune function, reduce side effects, increase self-awareness, and enhance overall quality of life—while counteracting feelings of anxiety, fear, worry, tension, and helplessness—is an extremely important aspect of cancer care. Mind-body skills offer people with cancer an effective way to deal with stress and enhance well-being and quality of life. Mind-body practices offer a healing approach to cancer and an effective way to deal with cancer-related stress, as well as other biological and psychological issues related to cancer diagnosis and treatment. Mind-body skills are designed to bring a sense of calmness and relaxation to the mind and body, while enhancing self-awareness and a sense of overall well-being. Here are a few of the essential mind-body skills for cancer care:


Relaxation may seem like a simple thing to do, but truth is, most people do not know how to relax for an extended period of time. People with cancer must make relaxation a priority. This becomes especially important when the diagnosis or treatment of cancer provokes perpetual feelings of fear, frustration, anxiety, and loss. Relaxation can help individuals with cancer reduce stress, improve immune function, realize fewer side effects, experience quicker recovery time, decrease pain, improve mood, and think more clearly.

A simple relaxation technique that is highly effective in calming the mind-body is deep diaphragmatic (belly) breathing. This type of meditative breathing helps bring the nervous and hormonal systems into balance and restores a sense of mind-body ease. There are several guided “belly breathing” videos available free via the Internet.


A mind-body practice that combines relaxation and self-awareness is meditation. There are numerous studies that show the positive effect of mediation on chronic conditions such as cancer. A widely practiced from of mediation is called mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation is a process of nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness that helps people become fully present to what is going on inside of them and around them. By letting go of thoughts that keep one in the past or in the future, one is able to maintain full mental energy for the present (where life is actually happening), which has a calming and empowering effect on the mind-body.

Mindfulness research shows that mindfulness meditation can improve health, enhance performance, increase creativity, and decrease stress, anxiety, and fatigue. People with cancer can benefit from practicing mindfulness meditation. For example, mindfulness meditation can help individuals with cancer become aware and gain an understanding of the wide variety of emotions, thoughts, and feelings associated with cancer diagnosis and treatment.


Imagery is one of the most widely used mind-body self-care practices in cancer care. It is often paired with relaxation and other mind-body modalities such as meditation and self-hypnosis. The mind-body practice of imagery involves using the imagination to alter the physiological process of the body. Imagery exercises can help to remind people of what is most important to them in regards to their health and their life.

The therapeutic effects of imagery for cancer care include pain control, quicker recovery from cancer surgery, reduced side effects from chemotherapy treatments, enhanced ability to express emotion, improved ability to reduce stress, and improved immune function.


Hypnosis, like imagery, uses a combination of relaxation and focused attention, but it also includes suggestibility. Hypnosis not only invokes a deep sense of relaxation; it also allows for a reprogramming of the subconscious mind, which is often where limiting and fear-based beliefs reside. Research on the use of hypnosis for cancer shows evidence of its positive affects on anxiety, immune function, pain, and side effects associated with cancer treatment.


Often people with cancer feel overwhelmed and unable to express the myriad of feelings and emotions that come and go through their cancer journey. Research shows that emotional expression (rather than repression) through avenues such as journaling, drawing, and group support can be very healing. Specifically, emotional expression can help people with cancer alleviate emotional stress, improve immune function, reduce pain, cope better, and gain a sense of overall well-being.

In sum

Integrative healthcare and mind-body medicine can effectively address the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual nature of healing, illness, and change. Since chronic conditions such as cancer are, at least in part, lifestyle related, then a holistic yet practical lifestyle approach for whole-person healing is needed. Mind-body medicine offers a practical, integrated approach to well-being, and it empowers individuals to take an active role in their own healthcare. Mind-body medicine is a cost effective, practical, accessible, and easy to implement form of self-care that can enhance self-awareness, energize well-being, and prevent the onset of chronic disease.