Touch therapy may also help many cancer patients feel better, even if it doesn’t fight the disease itself. There are plenty of complementary approaches based on touch, including massage, Reiki (an approach developed in Japan that uses touch to direct healing energy through the body), and healing touch (which typically involves hands placed over but not touching the body). A 2009 study of periatric patients by researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., found that healing touch lowered stress and reduced heart rate variability. Researchers at Sweden’s Goteborg University reported in 2007 that massage therapy helped relieve nausea in women with breast cancer who were undergoing chemotherapy.
Despite the claims made by some unscrupulous practitioners, however, there’s no evidence that these approaches fight cancer.
“We have to be very careful not to claim too much,” says Joan Engebretson, a professor of nursing at the University of Texas Health Science Center’s School of Nursing, who recently reviewed findings of studies testing touch therapies. “Touch can be enormously powerful for restoring a sense of well-being and balance. It can help people heal in the holistic sense. But there is no evidence that it directly treats any disease.”
Still, many cancer patients say they get enormous benefits from massage and other touch therapies.
“Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of someone using his hands to manipulate energy fields in the body,” says a retired physician who requested that his name not be used. Diagnosed several years ago with late-stage kidney cancer, he now receives Reiki therapy once a week. “I don’t know if it will have any effect on the tumors. And I know it’s no substitute for conventional treatment,” he says. “But it has had a big impact on my sense of well-being.”
Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.