Onco-hypnosis, also known sometime as hypno-oncology, is the use of hypnosis as an adjunct therapy for cancer patients. From the outset, I want to clarify that hypnosis cannot cure cancer, however it can be used to great success and with no side effect to help manage symptoms of the disease or its treatment.
Hypnotherapy is a very powerful tool with a 300 years written history, and some primitive form of hypnosis has been used in rituals since we were still hunter-gatherers eons ago. Yet nowadays, most people associate therapeutic hypnosis with either smoking cessation, phobias or weight loss. And indeed, those are traditional uses for the therapy, have been used by many people with some tremendous success. And yet, the potential of hypnosis is barely scratched with those.
Lately, the use of hypnosis for cancer patients have started to attract a lot of attention. Here are the highlights of what hypnosis has been used for in the context of oncology care.
Onco-hypnosis for anxiety and stress
Here is one domain where hypnosis does excel, and can bring some lasting improvement for anyone, and for cancer patients in particular. Anybody who’s been sucked in the hyper-medicalisation that goes with a cancer diagnosis knows how much stress and anxiety is forced upon us in that situation. The use of hypnosis for anxiety and stress doesn’t need introduction and has been well-researched (see for instance this review of six studies using hypnosis as treatment for anxiety and stress-related disorders). And of course, stress and anxiety are two different emotions and can come at various stage of clinical cancer treatment. Hypnosis has been particularly well studied as it relates to pre-operative anxiety (for instance in this controlled study hypnosis reduced preoperative anxiety in adult patients by 56%) and is routinely used by therapists to calm either feelings of stress or anxiety in a wide variety of other settings, from fear of flying to stress about an exam.
And as I hinted at in a previous article, chronic stress leads to high cortisol, and constantly high cortisol can be one factor leading to muscle wasting and high blood glucose. And we know how blood glucose regulation is important for cancer patients. Therefore, hypnosis for relaxation, to decrease stress and anxiety should be first-line response for cancer patients.
Hypnotic pain control in cancer care
The treatment of cancer can be painful, and sometime the disease itself is. So much so that for some, even the hospital pain relievers are of little help. And the pain is very real. But until the pain signal reaches the brain, it is only an electrical signal. This signal then gets interpreted in the brain as pain. The pain response is a very important and healthy behaviour of our brain, it is necessary to our survival as a species and as individuals. If you have a low pain threshold (meaning a little discomfort easily feels painful), you have better odds to survive.
Unfortunately, in the context of a medical treatment such as chemotherapy, which is not natural, pain gets in the way of our healing. Hypnosis has a very long and successful track record at lowering pain by reprogramming the brain as to increase the pain threshold. This has also been used in cancer care with very significant success, notably but not exclusively post-operative and during biopsies ( for instance see this study which shows hypnosis to be superior to nonhypnotic techniques for reduction of pain and anxiety during lumbar puncture in 27 children and adolescents with cancer and this controlled clinical trial showing hypnosis can be effective in reducing reported oral pain for patients undergoing marrow transplantation).
Once again, those hypnotic techniques are very common and used in all sort of settings, from tattoo saloon to emergency hypnosis.
Managing nausea & vomiting
When going through chemotherapy, you are essentially injected with a poison. Nausea & vomiting are common consequences of chemotherapy, and unfortunately this means that many patients will either lose appetite or not be able to digest their food. And from there, it is easy to fall into cachexia and have one’s body wasting away. Nausea is similar to pain in the sense that this is a signal that gets interpreted in the brain, and therefore hypnosis can be very powerful here too. In fact the hypnotic treatment of nausea is very similar to that of pain. Vomiting is normally a consequence of the nausea, so it gets relief at the same time. When free from nausea, a cancer patient will be able to start nutritional therapy and rebuild his or her strength faster, so this tool should be again considered as a high-priority (see for instance this systematic review of the use of hypnosis for nausea and vomiting in cancer chemotherapy, or this case study about one patient who remains free from nausea & vomiting 3 years after treatment).
Better sleep and relief from fatigue
Sleep disorders, such as difficulty falling asleep, problems maintaining sleep, early awakening, and excessive daytime sleepiness, are prevalent in patients with cancer. All of those symptoms again can be addressed under hypnosis, because falling asleep is not a conscious act. In fact, it something that happens to you only once you let go of your hold on any form of control. Conversely, most of us have experience “trying” to fall asleep and therefore staying up all night. Fatigue is normally a consequence of not sleeping well, but can also have other deeper causes such as emotional stress (see for instance this controlled study of the effect of hypnotic relaxation on insomnia. Also in this study hypnosis compared favourably to a sedative for sleep parameters in post-traumatic stress sufferers).
Boosting the immune system?
One of the most recent and also most fascinating fields of research is that of psychoneuroimmunology: how your thoughts can influence your brain, your endocrine system (= your hormones) and in turn influence your immune system. There is a small but growing body of research, covering from allergies to adjunct therapies for cancer patients. Preliminary indications are that the visualisation under hypnosis of a strong immune system could somehow activates the body resources and up-regulate immune function. There seems to be also a direct link between stress and immune system (See for instance this review of the impact of hypnosis on immunity and health or this one which specifically refers to cancer patients).
Accelerated healing for cancer patient??
Here the explanation is probably not as clear as to what mechanism is leveraged in hypnosis. But there are a few small-scale studies that show better postoperative recovery when using hypnosis, including wound and surgical cut healing. Faster burn healing (which may or may not be relevant to radiotherapy) and accelerated recovery of bone fractures have also been reported, however the subject deserves a lot more attention than is currently given to by the research community. No research has been done specifically for cancer patient that I am aware of. In any instance this should only be considered experimental at this point in time.
Recruiting the power of the unconscious mind???
I kept this for last as this is possibly the most “esoteric” point of the list, and yet it is quite trivial. It is estimated that only 5% of your brain activity constitute your conscious mind, the remaining 95% being your unconscious or subconscious. That mean that the vast majority of your brain work is beyond your knowledge and awareness – and this includes stuff like processing languages, creative thinking, food choice and all of those actions you make every minute without thinking about it. If part of the causes for cancer are within lifestyle choices, relying on those 5% to change your lifestyle may look like a very inefficient proposition. Hypnosis is the art and science of accessing and reprogramming the unconscious – the remaining 95% of your brain activity, and a hypnotherapy session will in fact help you regain control on those aspects of your life that are often beyond your control. So be it smoking cessation, giving up sweets and sugars, eating healthily, sticking to your exercise resolution or just remembering to take some me-time to soothe and relax, which is the behaviour that your hypnotherapist can help you with right now?