Hypnosis still suffers from its image as a parlor trick or Las Vegas stunt. Yet this powerful mind/body technique is proving to have a number of uses in cancer care.
“Hypnosis is really nothing more than a form of highly focused attention, which can be used to help people control how they respond to the stress of having cancer and to some of the physical consequences of the disease,” says psychiatrist David Spiegel, M.D., director of the integrative medicine program at Stanford University Medical Center.
Hypnosis as practiced in medicine isn’t something done to patients, but rather a technique they’re taught to use themselves.
“One of the benefits is to empower people, to give them a sense of control,” says Gary Elkins, director of the Mind-Body Medicine Research Laboratory in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco. “That’s especially important in cancer treatment, since the disease often makes people feel as if their bodies have gone out of control.”
Research suggests it may offer other, more tangible benefits, including:
Better pain control. About two-thirds of patients with metastatic cancer experience pain. Although conventional pain medications help, they’re often not enough or may have unwanted side effects. Self-hypnosis can lessen or even eliminate the experience of pain, studies show. In a recent 12-month trial at Stanford University, for example, women with metastatic breast cancer who used self-hypnosis reported less intense pain than women in a control group.
Relief from hot flashes. Elkins and his colleagues at Baylor University have had success using hypnotherapy to reduce hot flashes common in breast cancer patients. Their 2008 study involving 60 subjects showed that hot flash “scores”—a measure of frequency and intensity—decreased 68 percent in women receiving hypnotherapy. Volunteers who learned self-hypnosis techniques also reported feeling less anxious and depressed. “We encourage women to relax and then imagine themselves in a cool setting, walking down a snowy path on a winter day, for example,” explains Elkins. “The more personal the imagery is, the more effective it seems to be.”
An antidote to fatigue. A common side effect of many cancer therapies—fatigue—can leave patients so tired they can barely get out of bed. Hypnotherapy may help. In a 2009 study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, self-hypnosis proved so powerful that women undergoing radiation for breast cancer on average reported no increase in fatigue. Those in a matched control group experienced steadily increasing fatigue during and after treatment.
It’s important to remember that hypnosis doesn’t work for everyone, says Spiegel. “We always have to be careful when we tell patients that they can control their pain and other symptoms with mind/body techniques. If it doesn’t work, there’s the danger that some patients may feel as if they’ve failed. And that only adds to their distress.” For the best shot at success, experts recommend finding a psychologist or psychiatrist trained in hypnotherapy, preferably one associated with a major medical center.
Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.