In an age of rapidly changing, yet almost algorithmic cancer prevention, research, and treatment protocols, compassion can be a powerful ally in a cancer patient’s fight against the disease.

According to Mother Teresa, “the fruit of love is service, which is compassion in action.” The Dalai Lama called compassion, “the radicalism of our time.” He added, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Healing with Care

Let’s be honest: Most of us believe we practice compassion in our daily lives. Sure, we fall short with moments of anger, jealousy, or lack of empathy, but we understand with compassion comes a healthier, fulfilling existence. But what if this compassion can go beyond the spiritual and personal realms and help us fight disease in ways measurable in scientific terms? What if compassion, combined with personalized and precise molecular-based treatment, can play a component in defeating cancer, a condition that affects an estimated 1,735,350 Americans each year?

Healthy Feelings, Healthy Answers

In his recent book, The Compassionate Connection: The Healing Power of Empathy and Mindful Listening, David Rakel, a medical doctor and researcher, explores how care providers and researchers can integrate compassion into their practices to improve patients’ outcomes.  According to Dr. Rakel, “if we provided a compassionate interaction with someone in pain, the science shows that works as well as 8mg of morphine.”

When we experience compassion, we are sharing our suffering with another human being. This interaction, often combined with physical touch, can rapidly release oxytocin, a hormone that increases our feelings of trust, calmness, safety, generosity, and connectedness—the emotions associated with health and wellbeing. 

It’s easy to see the effects of cancer treatment on the patient’s body and spirit are far-reaching. The fatigue, the hair loss, and, more importantly, the overwhelming feeling of not knowing what tomorrow holds—these are the realities cancer patients face daily. Combine those with the current zeitgeist and stresses on institutions such as family, community, and faith, and it’s understandable why many cancer patients report feeling alone in their time of need.

Overcoming this feeling of loneliness begins with compassion from others and, as importantly, self-compassion. A cancer diagnosis can create unnecessary and unhealthy guilt in patients. This guilt ranges from questioning what they could’ve done to avoid cancer to bigger questions about life choices and one’s place in the universe.

Less Critical and Truly Connected

When we criticize ourselves we activate the amygdala, the oldest evolutionary part of our brains. The amygdala sends out fight-or-flight signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the stress hormone cortisol. Practicing self-compassion helps us soothe our own pain by tapping into the mammalian caregiving system, increasing the release of oxytocin and decreasing cortisol levels. Compassion is so powerful that studies show patients imagining the experience of compassion can decrease cortisol.

Self-compassion may also prove—along with diet, exercise, and environmental factors— to be a player in cancer prevention. The more we know about the brain, stress, and the hormones associated with it, the more we can measure the damage done to our immune system and cells.

We also must consider the role technology plays in our lives and health care. The paradox is that, while the Internet and smart devices have the power to connect us with people around the globe, these machines may also further isolate us from family, friends, neighbors, and the community. 

As artificial intelligence is incorporated into health care and, more specifically, personalized cancer research, treatment, and avoidance programs, the need for compassion and human touch and interaction become forefront in care protocols. In fact, in yet another paradox, AI might help us unlock the scientific keys behind the chemical changes compassion creates in the body and mind, and how we can further unlock compassion’s power to heal and increase cancer survival rates while decreasing suffering during treatment. 

After all, you don’t need science to tell you how good you feel after a nice hug or caress, even if it’s from yourself.