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Five Ways in Which Hypnotherapy can Assist Cancer Patients

By Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D.

In 1978 Richard Bloch, co-founder of H&R Block, was diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was that he would be dead in three months. After two years of aggressive therapy he recovered. Wanting to make a difference in the lives of others struggling with cancer, he sold his interest in H&R Block and founded The Cancer Hotline in 1980, and the Block Cancer Support Center in 1986. He sponsored a national computer database, the Physician's Data Query, with the latest research and treatment protocols for every known form of cancer. Today this database is operated by the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

Richard and his wife, Annette, wrote Fighting Cancer, a book offering self-help advice. Their second book, A Guide for Cancer Supporters1, is for family and friends of those who have cancer. Both books offer inspiration and hope, encouraging cancer patients to fight to live, instead of waiting to die. These books also recommend that cancer patients supplement medical interventions with psychotherapy, guided imagery, and clinical hypnotherapy. In the 1970's the use of such therapies in the treatment of disease was almost unheard of and to suggest such an idea bordered on heresy. Three decades later, supplemental therapies such as hypnotherapy, acupuncture, therapeutic massage, nutritional counseling, and neuro-feedback are widely considered as essentials in the holistic approach to health and the treatment of disease.

This article speaks directly to the role of hypnotherapy in treating cancer patients. Hypnotherapy was approved by the American Medical Association in 1958 as a viable adjunct to other medical treatment. Hypnotherapy is a psychological treatment that combines trance-inducing methods and relaxation with story-telling, guided imagery, and direct and indirect suggestions that guide the listener toward changes in behavior, emotions, thinking, and physical responses. Here are five ways in which hypnotherapy can help people cope with cancer.

1. Relaxation

With the diagnosis of cancer come fears of dreadful possibilities: painful medical procedures, the side-effects of medication, the possibility of physical suffering, a shortened life span, curtailed activities, and changes in relationships. Panic and anxiety are natural and understandable responses to such fears, many of which are logical and realistic. However, panic and anxiety may only increase the symptoms and interfere with those activities that are still doable and worthwhile.

Hypnotherapy is a means of relaxation that helps one stay focused and mindful of the moment, relaxed enough to enjoy the simple pleasures that life still offers. Sleep is especially difficult with so many worries. Hypnotherapy can often induce the deep relaxation and pleasant imagery that allows a restorative night of sleep.

2. Pain Management

With cancer, there are three sources of physical pain: The pain of the cancer's damage to the body, the pain of medical procedures, and the pain of muscle tension that often accompanies fear or emotional distress. Pain is generally a warning to the body to take action and muscle tension is the body's natural, fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat. When muscle tension leads to action that reduces or eliminates pain (i.e., you quickly remove your hand from a hot stove) then the tension serves a purpose. When the tension only exacerbates the pain, then the tension is not helping.

Hypnotherapy teaches a host of pain management methods that generally divert the mind's attention elsewhere. Pain decreases when we pay less attention to it. Hypnotherapy uses relaxation, focusing exercises, and guided imagery to take the mind away from pain, thus reducing tension. A hypnotherapist will often use images and stories to suggest different ways to think about pain. For example, if a client says the pain feels like a red-hot, burning coal, the hypnotherapy session may include a short story about firemen dowsing a fire with cold water, until the fire goes away, and then a clean-up crew arrives to clear away the debris and repair the damage. Through training in self-hypnosis, cancer patients can eventually learn how to turn pain off, or at least ignore it with increasing effectiveness.

3. Manage Fears of Medical Procedures

Let's face it. Despite the best efforts of medical teams, clinical and hospital procedures are not fun. Surgical processes, treatments and exams are often painful, annoying, uncomfortable, and inconvenient. At times they can reduce one's sense of dignity, privacy, and personal control. Medical procedures are especially daunting to people who associate medical processes with traumatic and painful experiences of the past and fears of what the future can hold. Some people actually develop phobias for white coats, the smell of antiseptics, or the sight of a hypodermic needle.

Hypnotherapy employs several methods to alleviate the effects of trauma and reduce fears and phobias. These desensitization methods work by pairing a state of detachment, confidence, and relaxation, with memories or images of traumatic or fear-producing events, while reminding the listener that those experiences are over and done.

4. Recovery From Surgery

There are several studies in which hypnotherapy has been shown to reduce bleeding and swelling during surgery, as well as to minimize discomfort or nausea following surgery or chemotherapy. Surgical incisions can heal more quickly with hypnotic suggestions. In many cases hypnosis may help surgery patients cope with pain and sleep well, so they require less post-surgery medication. Some hospitals now employ hypno-anesthesiologists as part of the surgical team, for those patients who are allergic to or highly intolerant of chemical anesthesia agents.

5. Enhanced Health and Healing

Numerous authors have spoken about the benefits of guided imagery to help cancer patients achieve healing, stronger immunity, and remission. In guided imagery, the client relaxes while the therapist describes stories and images of healing sanctuaries, healing beams of light, fountains of life, guardian angels or spiritual entities, and visions of future recovery and return to normal activity. Skeptics dismiss positive results as the placebo effect or a fluke. Perhaps they take too lightly the manner in which the brain transmits chemical messages, via the neurological pathways, that activate the body's own healing responses.

In 1978, Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, O. Carl Simonton, and James Creighton, wrote the ground-breaking book, Getting Well Again (Bantam Books, 1984), a self-help guide for cancer patients. They told cancer patients that beliefs and attitudes play an important role in pain management and recovery. They described the value of mental relaxation and imagery. They also provided case studies in which cancer patients achieved improvement and, at times, remission, by visualizing and drawing pictures of their cancer cells being destroyed by armies of protective cells dispatched by the immune system. Patients often chose metaphoric images for these protective cells; pacman cartoon characters, knights on horseback, or toothy sharks. Amazingly, many of these pictures characterized the manner in which Natural Killer cells actually attack and destroy individual cancer cells.

In the field of psychoneuroimmunology (the study of the role of psychological processes in the treatment of disease), there are numerous recently-published books available to hypnotherapists who want to improve their skills in working with cancer patients. One is Guided Imagery (Crown House, 2000) by Rubin Battino, Adjunct Professor at Wright State University in the Department of Human Services, and President of the Milton H. Erickson Society at Dayton, Ohio. In addition to his academic duties he is a group facilitator for cancer patients at the The Charlie Brown Exceptional Patient Support Group in Dayton, Ohio.


Hypnosis can prove a viable part of a cancer treatment regimen. Additionally, a hypnotherapist can help the client adapt behavioral changes, such as smoking cessation, that contribute to improved health. Insurance companies now reimburse psychotherapy sessions conducted by licensed mental health practitioners who incorporate hypnotherapy, relaxation training, and guided imagery into their clinical skills. Many clinics now offer support groups for these purposes as well.

Cancer patients have more tools at their disposal than ever before, with the ability to assemble a virtual team of practitioners drawn from traditional and non-traditional disciplines. Today's doctors are more interested in treating the whole person, not just the disease. We've come a long way in medical care, not just in having advanced drugs and technologies, but also in our attitudes about the mind-body aspects of illness and health. We now know that a will to live, like that displayed by Richard Bloch and so many others, often imparts the strength to endure and outstrips all that medicine can accomplish.

Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist, counselor and life coach with a private practice, Motivational Strategies, Inc., in Springfield, Virginia. She specializes in solution-oriented therapies, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Hypnotherapy. She is the executive director of the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists ( She recently published The Weight, Hypnotherapy, and You Weight Reduction Program: An NLP and Hypnotherapy Practitioner's Manual released by Crown House Ltd of Wales. Her web site is

Posted: 03/21/2007

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