Hypnosis can be a helpful tool for cancer patients. I use it often in my therapy practice in Bryn Mawr, where I support many clients who have cancer and other serious illnesses.
Hypnosis is a relaxed state of mind. When we are hypnotized our brains are using alpha and theta brainwaves, just as we do in meditation and some stages of sleep. These relaxed brainwave patterns allow us to more open to suggestion, or “suggestible”: we are more likely to believe what we are told, and we are able to change how we think and feel about things. We can use this suggestibility to our great benefit in many areas of life, from emotional wellbeing to health. Indeed, there is a growing body of clinical data supporting the use of hypnosis for people with cancer across all phases of treatment, from detection/diagnosis, through various types of treatment, and into survivorship. Here are some highlights from the literature:
Hypnosis has been shown to decrease anxiety, distress, and pain for people undergoing biopsy. The studies published have focused on breast cancer screening.
- One study showed that women undergoing needle biopsies who had been hypnotized experienced significantly less anxiety and pain
- Another study found that breast biopsy patients who had been hypnotized experienced less pre- and post-biopsy distress and less post-biopsy pain.
- A third study found less pre-biopsy upset, depression, and anxiety, and more relaxation, among women who had been hypnotized.
Hypnosis can support every mainstream form of cancer treatment. It has been helpful for surgical patients, has reduced side-effects of chemotherapy, and has helped with the effects of radiation.
Surgical patients who received hypnosis pre-operatively had less anxiety, pain, pain medication, emotional upset, and fatigue, and had shorter treatment time.
- One study found patients in hypnosis treatment groups had better outcomes than 89% of patients in control groups across a wide range of clinical outcomes including pain, pain medication, negative affect, blood pressure, nausea, fatigue, and treatment time.
- Two other studies, here and here, found that just 15 minutes of hypnosis before surgery led to less pain and pain medication, less nausea, fatigue, discomfort, and emotional upset.
Anti-nausea medications have improved quality of life for patients receiving chemotherapy. However, some patients still experience chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting. Hypnosis has been shown to help alleviate these treatment effects.
- A meta-analysis found statistically significant reductions in nausea and vomiting for patients who received hypnosis.
- A second review of the literature also found that hypnosis improved chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.
Patients undergoing radiation treatment are often affected by fatigue and emotional distress. Hypnosis helps:
- A study of women receiving radiation for breast cancer found that the hypnotized women did not become fatigued during treatment whereas those who were not hypnotized did become fatigued as treatment progressed.
- Another study showed that hypnosis significantly reduced negative affect and increased positive affect.
According to the American Cancer Society, in January 2014 there were 14.5 million cancer survivors in the United States. Many experience impaired quality of life after treatment, including neuropathy and pain, cognitive problems, fatigue, fear of cancer recurrence, hot flashes and sexual dysfunction (American Cancer Society). Hypnosis may help with the after-effects of cancer treatment:
- A study of hypnosis to treat hot flashes and other treatment after-effects showed that hypnosis significantly improved hot flashes, anxiety, sleep, and depression.
Metastatic and recurrent diagnoses can be very distressing for cancer patients. Metastatic patients often experience pain and suffering, as well as emotional distress. Hypnosis has had a measurable impact on quality and even quantity of life for these patients:
- Two studies, one from 1983 here, and a more recent one from 2009 here, both showed that women with metastatic breast cancer who received hypnosis experienced significantly less pain and suffering and improved mood.
Two other studies have shown intriguing effects of hypnosis on length of life.
- In the first study, published in the 1980’s, survival time was significantly longer in the women who received supportive group therapy with hypnosis (mean of 36.6 months) compared to no-treatment controls (mean of 18.9 months).
- A replication in 2007 found that survival time for metastatic breast cancer patients with ER-positive cancers was not significantly affected by the hypnosis intervention BUT for ER negative patients, the hypnosis group had a significant longer survival time than the non-treatment controls.
Hypnosis delivery: live or recorded?
There is a plethora of guided meditations, guided imagery, and hypnosis on the market, for free or offered at a low cost, including the ones I’ve published on my podcast here. While these recordings can be helpful, live hypnosis is better: -)
- Two meta-analyses, one here and one here, both showed that live hypnosis had a larger effect size than recorded hypnosis.
For those who are living with cancer and undergoing cancer treatment, hypnosis can be tremendously helpful to address a wide range of symptoms, from emotional distress to physical pain. Relaxing and opening ourselves up to the mind-body-spirit connection improves quality of life and overall wellbeing.