Mind-body therapies and cancer
This section discusses some of the most popular and widely available mind-body complementary 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 well-being. Like all other complementary or alternative therapies, they have no effect on the cancer. But they are often given as part of support for people with cancer.
Mind-body therapies are available in many conventional cancer treatment centres. They may help you feel less anxious, improve your mood and help you sleep. They can also be used to ease symptoms, such as pain, or to reduce side effects caused by cancer treatment. We have information about more symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatments.
Most mind-body techniques need to be practised regularly for you to get the best results. Many people find that attending group classes helps them stay motivated to practise the techniques.
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.
Search for a support group near you.
Simple breathing and relaxation exercises can help reduce anxiety and stress. As well as calming your mind, they may also reduce muscle tension. This may have a positive effect on the parts of the nervous system that control blood pressure and the digestive system. Relaxation is sometimes 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 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. Various studies are looking at whether visualisation can be of any benefit to people with cancer. Some studies have found that women having treatment for breast cancer have improved their mood using visualisation. Other research has shown that, for some people, it can reduce the symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment
Meditation uses concentration or reflection to deeply relax and calm the mind. This can help 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 reducing anxiety and stress levels.
You can use CDs to meditate at home or you may find it helpful to meditate in a group until you are familiar with the technique.
You can ask your GP or hospital doctor if they offer meditation or check with a complementary therapy organisation.
Meditation may not be suitable for people who have mental health problems. If you have or have had a mental illness, it’s important to get advice from your doctor before considering meditation.
Many people use hypnotherapy to help them make positive lifestyle changes, such as giving up smoking, or to encourage positive emotions, such as calmness and relaxation.
Some studies have shown that hypnotherapy has helped reduce some side effects of cancer treatment, such as nausea and vomiting. Some other studies have shown it can help with pain. But there isn’t enough reliable evidence for doctors to recommend it as the main treatment for these problems.
A hypnotherapist will work with you to create a more helpful state of mind, during which you will still be aware of your surroundings. The therapist will make suggestions, which are believed to have a helpful effect on the way you deal with certain situations. You are always in control and are able to stop any session by simply opening your eyes.
Art therapy is used to help people to express themselves. The art therapist may have training in psychotherapy and will encourage you to communicate your feelings through painting, drawing or sculpting. The aim is to express your feelings rather than produce a work of art.
The therapy can be given one-to-one with the therapist or in groups.
Being creative can sometimes help you become more aware of, and let go of, difficult feelings. These feelings can then be discussed, if appropriate, in counselling or group sessions.
You don’t need to be able to draw or paint to take part. You will be encouraged to be spontaneous and doodle.
Art therapy is not widely available for cancer patients on the NHS. The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) can help you find an art therapist near you.
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. You don’t need to be able to play an instrument or read music.
Music therapy can be carried out individually or as part of a group.
During the session, you work with a range of easy-to-use instruments to help show your feelings. The aim is to help people who may find it difficult to talk about their feelings to express themselves.
Music therapy 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.
How have we created this information?
Read our statement about how we have written and reviewed our information about complementary therapies.