Mind-body therapies and cancer
This section discusses some of the most popular and widely available mind-body therapies used by people with cancer in the UK.
Mind-body therapies are based on the belief that what we think and feel can affect our health and healing. They are available in many cancer treatment centres and are often given as part of conventional support for people affected by cancer.
Mind-body therapies may help you feel less anxious and can improve your mood and the quality of your sleep. They can also be used to ease symptoms, such as pain, or to reduce some side effects caused by cancer treatment. Some mind-body therapies, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, were once considered complementary medicine but have become a part of conventional medicine.
Most mind-body techniques need to be practised regularly for you to get the best results. Many people find that attending group classes helps motivate them to keep practising. Some NHS services and support groups offer mind-body therapies. You can ask if they are provided at your hospital or if they can be accessed through your GP.
Simple breathing and relaxation exercises can help reduce anxiety and stress. As well as calming your mind, they may also reduce muscle tension and positively affect the parts of the nervous system that control blood pressure and the digestive system. Relaxation can sometimes be used together with meditation and visualisation.
Almost everyone can use relaxation techniques. You can learn them as part of a group or at home using a CD. You can get relaxation CDs and audio tapes from organisations such as Talking Life, Penny Brohn Cancer Care or the Pain Relief Foundation.
Visualisation (mental imagery)
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This technique involves creating images in your mind while you are in a state of relaxation or meditation. For example, you might imagine that:
you’re lying in a field full of beautiful flowers
you’re healthy and strong
the sun’s rays are shining on you, warming you and giving you strength.
The theory is that by imagining a peaceful scene you will feel more relaxed, and by imagining yourself being healthy you can influence the health of your body. To see how imagination can produce physical changes, picture a lemon being cut in front of you. Most people who do this will notice that they start to produce more saliva.
Various research studies are looking at whether visualisation can improve outcomes for people with cancer. Some studies have found that women having treatment for breast cancer have been able to improve their mood using visualisation. Other research has shown that, for some people, visualisation or guided imagery can reduce the symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment.
Meditation uses concentration or reflection to deeply relax and calm the mind, helping to reduce feelings of fear, pain, anxiety and depression.
Regular meditation practice can help people feel more in control of themselves and their lives. Many studies have shown that regular meditation lowers blood pressure and reduces the pulse rate, as well as anxiety and stress levels.
People who have mental health problems, such as psychosis, may find that some types of meditation make their psychiatric illness worse. If you have or have had a mental illness, it’s important to get advice from your doctor before attempting meditation.
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Many people use hypnosis to help them make positive lifestyle changes, such as giving up smoking, or to encourage positive emotions, such as calmness and relaxation. Hypnosis can also be used to reduce some side effects of cancer treatment, such as nausea and vomiting, or to manage symptoms, such as pain.
The hypnotherapist leads you into a deeply relaxed state (trance) during which you remain conscious of your surroundings. It’s believed that being in this state helps you open your mind to beneficial suggestions made by the hypnotherapist and helps you use your imagination to make positive changes in your life.
Art therapy is used to help people to express themselves. The art therapist is usually a psychotherapist and encourages you to communicate your feelings through painting, drawing or sculpting. The aim is to express yourself rather than produce a work of art. The therapy can be given one-to-one with the therapist or in groups. Through creativity, we can sometimes become aware of and release pent-up feelings. The feelings or emotions can then be discussed, if appropriate, in counselling or group sessions.
You don’t need to be able to draw or paint at all and you will be encouraged to be spontaneous and doodle. Sometimes the therapist may be more directive and ask you to ‘paint your cancer’ or try to capture your relationship with your family. These exercises can help you understand yourself more fully.
Art therapist Michele Wood talks in our online community about art therapy and how it can help people with cancer.
This therapy uses music to improve quality of life by helping people communicate their feelings. It has also been shown to help relieve symptoms such as pain. Some studies found that people using music therapy were able to use lower doses of painkillers to control their pain.
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Read our statement a bout how we have written and reviewed our information about complementary therapies.