By: Talila Marcus | LMSW
Many people have an incomplete or erroneous understanding of what exactly is hypnosis, and how it may be used in the treatment of cancer. This article will take a cursory look at hypnosis and where it may be used to offer an alternative and side-effect–free management of several aspects of care that can be beneficial to patients with cancer.
There are many definitions of hypnosis. This is a compilation of the most useful definitions: Hypnosis is a focused state of attention, where the subject is highly relaxed physically while the mind is alert, curious, and open to suggestions.
The therapy in hypnosis relates to the actual suggestions offered to the patient. The skill of the hypnotherapist is the ability to place the patient in a trance — the deeper the better — and then offer relevant suggestions related to the patient's treatment. The success of the treatment is a combination of the relevance of the suggestions, the depth of the trance, and the strength of the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patient.
Patients with cancer will experience specific symptoms upon being told their diagnosis. These may include anxiety, stress, depression, fear, and loss of control. Hypnosis can alleviate these symptoms. Patients about to begin chemotherapy or radiation therapy may find that hypnotherapy can drastically reduce or eliminate the side effects of these treatments such as nausea, tiredness, etc. Hypnotherapy can help patients relax, and better cope with treatment and pain.
Although no research studies have been conducted on using hypnosis to cure cancer, there are many anecdotal accounts of patients whose cancer went into remission after undergoing hypnotherapy or guided imagery (a form of relaxation that uses hypnotic techniques to allow the patient to actively engage their cancer with their mind). I am not suggesting that hypnotherapy is a cure for cancer, but only that in the world of self-healing, hypnosis enjoys as much acclaim as other (nonresearched) alternative medical treatments.
Patients with cancer frequently experience pain, sickness, nausea, and for women with breast cancer, hot flashes, loss of self-esteem, and fear of surgery. These and other benefits have been researched and presented to the medical community:
It would make sense that pain and anxiety are closely related, and anything that lessens one will also lessen the other. Patients who undergo hypnosis before surgery or before chemotherapy or radiation therapy generally heal faster, experience less pain and therefore need less pain medication, and are less anxious about their situation.
The book Getting Well Again (Bantam Books; 1978) details what may have been the first end-stage cancer treatment research that included hypnotherapy. A literature review of studies conducted on the use of hypnotic techniques on pain management found that 75% of the participants in the studies reported less pain compared with the control groups.3 Another study in that literature review also reported that participants experienced less anxiety, less pain, less blood loss, and less postoperative nausea and vomiting.
Patients with cancer can use hypnosis to activate and trigger their immune system and aid their body in fighting the disease. Patients are often given instructions on using guided imagery to visualize their immune system working with their treatment to defeat the disease and eliminate toxins from their body.
Hypnosis has, over time and across many instances, been shown to improve both clinical and cost outcomes connected to cancer treatment. Unfortunately, there have been very few studies that examined and isolated hypnosis as a researched treatment for cancer overall. One highly quoted study measured the effects of hypnosis just on women patients who were undergoing biopsy. This study indicated that women who underwent hypnosis experienced lower levels of anxiety and pain during the procedure (with no increase in the cost). These patients also experienced less postbiopsy pain and irritation than the control group.
Hypnotherapy is an often misunderstood and overlooked treatment option with no known side effects and no reported negative consequences. There are many benefits of hypnosis that are supported by research findings, as well as many anecdotal reports of benefits that are yet to be investigated. Generally, the hypnotist and the patient work together to determine what goals hypnosis will attempt to achieve.