May 9, 2011 -- When Danilo Ramirez, 44, was diagnosed with stage 2 lymphoma, his doctor told him chemotherapy and radiation would offer him his best shot to survive. But the thought of medical treatments with harsh side effects overwhelmed Ramirez.
"Mentally [chemotherapy] was really hard on me," said Ramirez. "There were nights that I couldn't sleep at all, knowing that I had to face that."
Ramirez was too claustrophobic to endure radiation treatments, which required wearing a large protective mask.
"He almost was willing to refuse treatment for a potentially curable cancer," said Ramirez's doctor, Dr. Rex Hoffman, who is also the medical director of radiation oncology at Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center in Burbank, Calif.
"Without treatment, he would die," said Hoffman.
Hoffman tried to calm his anxiety by talking him through his initial radiation therapy. But Ramirez's anxiety only seemed to get worse. Sedatives did not make much difference.
"I just had a panic attack and I couldn't deal with the whole thing and I was just crying," said Ramirez.
So Hoffman recommended that Ramirez attend meditation sessions to control his fears.
And Hoffman's not the only physician prescribing meditation to his patients. More than 6 million Americans are advised meditation and other mind-body therapies by conventional health care providers, according to a report released Monday by Harvard Medical School. And for sicker patients, these alternatives therapies seem to provide both emotional and physical relief for many types of medical ailments, according to the findings, which were published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Nearly 40 percent of Americans use some form of complementary and alternative medicine, according to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey. These practices include meditation, yoga, acupuncture and other types of mind-body-practices. And now, many are receiving the support of conventional doctors who have seen apparent benefits in some of their patients.
Some studies suggest meditation can help lower blood pressure and even improve immune function.
"There are a lot of great benefits for people that are starting to meditate and we find that that's cumulative," said Harden. "So the more you meditate, the more the benefits last."
Meditation has more recently been tried to treat eating disorders, alcoholism, psoriasis, and even impotence. More than two dozen medical centers across the country, including specialized cancer centers, have attached complementary medicine centers, or provide meditation or other mind-body classes.
However, many of these uses of meditation are experimental, and the results vary by each patient. Many experts say meditation is more likely to treat medical conditions successfully when it is used in conjunction with conventional therapies.
"I think it's really an onus both not only on the patient but also on the physicians as well, and the people involved in the person's healthcare to provide them with different options they can benefit from," said Hoffman.
In fact, Hoffman said he's seen a huge difference in Ramirez's confidence and ability to handle his medical care. Within a few weeks since the start of his meditation sessions, Ramirez breezed through his round of radiation treatment without sedation.
"I was able to stay right there for 20 minutes without medication and just relaxing, working on my mind," said Ramirez. "You've got to make your mind control your body."