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Hypnotherapy and Cancer

Hypnotherapy is one of those complementary therapies about which there can be conflicting points of view. This is usually due to lack of understanding, aggravated by seeing stage hypnosis either live or on screen. However, if you ask around, you will soon find people who have been helped by hypnotherapy, whether it is those who want to stop smoking or lose weight, people who want to overcome their fear of flying, others who want to reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, or students needing help with exam nerves. In fact, the list of issues which can be helped by hypnotherapy is surprisingly long. The common theme is that part of the problem lies somewhere in the unconscious mind.

What is Hypnotherapy?
So, what do we mean by hypnotherapy? Firstly, it is the use of hypnosis in a therapeutic context, as opposed to being used for entertainment as in stage hypnosis. Hypnosis is sometimes described as an altered state of consciousness. In fact, you are experiencing this kind of state when you are waking up, falling asleep, or daydreaming. A hypnotic trance should therefore be looked upon as a very natural state, but one where your conscious mind has either stepped aside for a while or has become more narrowly focused. The hypnotherapist uses the trance to make suggestions to the client’s unconscious mind, without those suggestions being intercepted by the conscious mind. There are a number of other “trance phenomena” which can be used by the hypnotherapist, including analgesia and anaesthesia, time distortion, and dissociation. Hypnotherapy is a “talking therapy” and it is what is said to the client while in trance which is important, rather than simply being in trance (although that is a very comfortable and relaxing state in itself).

Fifty years ago the British Medical Association confirmed that hypnosis was an appropriate treatment method (indeed, sometimes the method of choice) for a number of conditions. While hypnotherapy is used by some doctors, dentists and psychiatrists it is not generally available on the National Health Service. There are exceptions, and some hospitals do employ hypnotherapists (for example, the Withington Hospital in Manchester uses hypnotherapy to treat IBS, and St George’s Hospital in London uses hypnosis to calm people before having chemotherapy). One reason may be the lack of available time. A hypnotherapist would normally see a client for one hour or 1 1/2 hours and this would not fit easily into a GP’s timetable. Although the sessions may be long the treatment is likely to be relatively quick, for example when compared to psychotherapy. The number of sessions needed will vary with the complexity of the condition to be treated. For example, smoking or blushing might be dealt with in a single session, while weight management might need six or more sessions over a period of months.

Helping people with cancer
What can a hypnotherapist do to help somebody who has cancer? The hypnotherapist will want to make it clear that he or she is not expecting to “cure” a person of cancer simply by taking them into a hypnotic trance. That said, there is plenty of evidence that hypnotherapy can help people with cancer, even if it is only to improve their quality of life for the time being. The reason why hypnotherapy can be relevant is because mind, body and spirit are interconnected and any treatment needs to take this into account. The extraordinary advances in medical science have been due to a greater understanding of how the body works and this has led to an emphasis on physical treatment (radiotherapy, chemotherapy etc), but the mind has its part to play as well. Hypnotherapy can therefore be used alongside the conventional medical treatments for cancer, and for a number of different purposes, as this list shows:

1. Relaxation versus stress It is generally accepted that stress can reduce the effectiveness of the human immune system, so changing the body’s ability to deal with cancer cells. Finding out that you have cancer is certainly stressful and, if you were not stressed before, you probably will be when you receive the diagnosis. Stress is an attitude of mind: you cannot control the entire external world but you can decide how you are going to react to it. There are a number of ways of improving relaxation, and hypnotherapy is a very effective one. When you have your first hypnotherapy session you will probably be taken through a progressive relaxation, relaxing first the body and then the mind. Of course, it is not enough to be relaxed only when you are with your hypnotherapist. Most hypnotherapists teach their clients how to do self hypnosis, giving the client a simple technique for taking themselves into a relaxing hypnotic trance. After a little practice the client will find that they can reduce their feelings of stress and feel much better as a result.

2. Psychoneuroimmunology The relatively new study of psychoneuroimmunology has shown that there is a relationship between the mind and the human immune system. Encouraging the client to think about their immune system, and focus on what it can do for them, does have a beneficial effect. The hypnotherapist will start with guided visualisation of the immune system and will ask the client to give themselves affirmations about their immune system while they are in self hypnosis, which they will be asked to do at least daily. The client may also be asked to do drawings showing themselves, the cancer, their immune system and their treatment. They will be encouraged to think about their immune system, together with their treatment, as being strong and powerful in comparison with the cancer cells.

Further reading
The following books, which are not specifically about hypnotherapy, provide a mass of information about the way mind and body interacts.

Getting Well Again, by Carl Simonton and others. This classic work appeared in the 1970s and has provoked a lot of new thinking.
Love, Medicine and Miracles, by Bernie Siegel
The Sickening Mind, by Paul Martin, brings the story up-to-date in a wide-ranging review. It is particularly interesting on the effect of stress on the immune system.

3. Side-effects There are a number of side-effects to cancer treatment which can be distressing or uncomfortable. It may be possible to eliminate or reduce these side-effects using hypnotherapy. For example, anticipatory nausea may arise in people going for chemotherapy. The fact that it happens before rather than after the treatment indicates that it has a psychological cause (although it is nonetheless real nausea). People taking tamoxifen sometimes experience hot flushes. We know that blushing has a psychological cause, and can be treated using hypnotherapy, so we can use similar techniques to help to reduce hot flushes. Other side-effects such as fear or depression can also be helped with hypnotherapy.

4. Preparation for surgery Hypnosis can be used in place of a general anaesthetic for some forms of surgery. This is of particular interest for those who find the after effects of a general anaesthetic to be unpleasant. However, a more common use of hypnotherapy is to help to prepare a client for surgery. This takes several forms. Firstly, a relaxed client who is expecting the operation to go well and who is expecting to recover quickly is likely to make better progress than one who is fearful and anxious. Secondly, the client can be trained to respond to suggestions given by the surgeon during an operation. While under a general anaesthetic a person’s conscious mind may be closed but their sense of hearing and their unconscious mind are still open. The surgeon can therefore give suggestions about bloodflow and healing to which the person’s unconscious mind can respond.

5. Self confidence and empowerment When a person is told that they have cancer there is a natural tendency for this fact to dominate their thinking and for them not be able to see beyond their recovery. Because they are in a situation which they have not had to face before they may feel overreliant on others (doctor, consultant, nursing staff) and feel they have lost control of their own lives. Hypnotherapy can help to re-establish their self-confidence, empower them in their dealings with others, and extend their focus to what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They will be encouraged to think about their goals (in addition to recovery), and to consider these goals when in self hypnosis. Establishing a goal as important in the unconscious mind will result in much better motivation.

6. Other issues People with cancer have the same issues as everybody else but the cancer may bring a particular issue to the fore. For example, a needle phobia, which was largely irrelevant in the past, may become very significant for somebody who is now visiting hospital much more than before. Emotional issues which have been put to one side in the past may become more important for somebody considering a reduced life expectancy.

7. Carers A person caring for somebody they love, and having to face the fact that they may die, will certainly benefit from the relaxation techniques and understanding that a hypnotherapist can provide. A carer may need help to focus on their own needs as well as on those of the person they are caring for.

PS (June 2013): An app on immune system imagery is now available to those with Apple iPhones or iPads – go to the Apple App Store and search  on Patrick Browning.


Patrick Browning, Clinical Hypnotherapist, Kensington London
Email: [email protected]
Website: www.Browning-Hypnosis.co.uk
Article Posted – 16th February 2007.
Copyright Patrick Browning


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