Safe choices: integrating Complementary or Alternative therapies

Patients with cancer have a vested interest in trying new therapies.  Indeed, complementary therapies are incorporated into many conventional treatments already.  These may include a breadth of options such as acupuncture, acupressure, Reiki, massage and psychological support amongst others.

Conventional clinical trials are designed to improve standards of care with statistically proven methods, and enrollment in these is generally associated with better outcomes, but there may not be trials relevant to your particular diagnosis, and hence Cancer patients often consider other options.

Alternative therapies, dietary regimes or supplements, and/ or cannabinoids may well be used by patients without the knowledge of their physicians, and are frequently rationalised through hard-sales techniques, rather than evidence based studies, taking advantage of the desperate needs of clientele fearing the worst.  Even more tragically, some of these may even contribute to worse outcomes, and heighten the toxicity of conventional therapy, as well as proving costly.

Hence I am a strong advocate of an open dialogue about any additional therapy you are want to include with your oncologist or physician.  Should you still wish to proceed after an informed discussion, then you can be assured that additional safety checks can be put in place, or recommendations made to time doses of alternative medicines or supplements to minimise having counterproductive effects. This gives you greater control, enhances trust, and ensures your best outcomes with you at the centre of your therapeutic team. Your doctor may not recommend them however, particularly if there is no strong supportive evidence of benefit, but you might even educate your consultant as to impact of integrating your chosen add-on.

Self-hypnosis, in contrast,  is remarkably safe. Levels of trance are likely to be be lighter than those induced by a therapist, but can still be rapidly effective. The innate process embodies self-control, self-determination, and end-point-oriented goal setting. A simple induction strategy will allow therapeutic suggestions to occur within a framework of relaxation, even in the face of huge uncertainty surrounding a cancer diagnosis, treatment outcomes, and the possibility long term functional loss.

Physiologically, relaxation allows our immune systems to function at their best. Without the stress response pumping cortisol and adrenaline out of our adrenal glands, (causing the racing heartbeat, vasoconstriction, high blood pressure, and immune suppression induced by the steroid, Cortisol), the body’s healing mechanisms can function optimally. Focussing on our breathing, slowing it down, allowing better lung expansion and oxygenation, starts to switch off the sympathetic nervous over-drive of the panic, fright and flight response.  Just doing that alone will make you feel better.

Repeated listening to simple, beneficial suggestions, drawing your attention to certain parts of your body, is a calming means to induce a peaceful state of mind. A light trance state, possibly familiar, but perhaps not purposefully enjoyed until now, will provide a mental ‘holiday’ from the turmoil of conscious thought processes.

When I had initially started using clinical hypnosis within my practice, I had offered it to the wife of one of my patients who I had got to know well over the course of treating her husband for a brain tumour. Prognostically, things did not look good for him, but he had retrieved a good level of independence following treatment, but was no longer able to work. They had four boys, and the youngest was 10 years old when his father was diagnosed. She had been amazing at remaining positive, and continued running her company, whilst juggling the family’s needs. Truly a modern-day superwoman.

During one of her husband’s follow-up appointments, she mentioned she had been getting a few twinges in her chest, for which she was being investigated. On our next meeting I was horrified to hear that she had been diagnosed with a rare, highly malignant form of lung cancer around the edge of her chest wall, in two sites. She was panic stricken, ‘awash with fear’, she told me, and had been told there was only a slim chance that surgery might be feasible, necessitating removal of one lung. If successful, and followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she may have a slim chance. She even wondered if surgery might be better in America, and was tempted to fly over to find out. It appeared that their young family would be orphans before long, and outliving her husband looked unlikely.

One of the hardest things as an oncologist is helping people come to terms with our inevitable mortality, particularly when a cancer diagnosis presents a prospect of a greatly foreshortened life.

Although we can do so much, we cannot promise cures, and often much of our work is listening, understanding, and ensuring we do our best to keep unpleasant symptoms at bay. All too frequently however, our treatments can involve risk, and discomfort from treatments, all undertaken in hope to prolong life, and improve its quality. We get to know our patients and their families well, and of course the hardest part is when we too become powerless to do more, and have to negotiate the difficult conversations about end-of-life care.

I must confess, when I offered her the option to have a session of hypnotherapy with me, I did not actually know quite what I was going to be able to say that could possibly make things any better.

She gratefully agreed, and we made time to meet the following day. That evening I jotted down some therapeutic approaches and suggestions, relying on the fact that she was clearly a woman who was highly capable, powerful, articulate and yet full of fear. Incapacitating fear.

When she arrived the following day, we agreed on the approach I had devised, and within deep trance I used metaphors that gave her new perspectives on her life, reconnected her powerful unconscious self with her conscious, and taught her self-hypnosis, along with a therapeutic tool box which would see her through any forthcoming surgery and recovery, remaining in control psychologically.

After our session, I could immediately see she felt better. “That’s amazing! My fear has actually gone!” she declared.

She underwent surgery in the UK, avoided spending a protracted period away from the family, and outstripped the expectations of her oncologist, who had confided to me that he did not expect her to survive the year. Over the years that followed, we continued to meet at her husband’s infrequent follow-ups, as he too had defied the statistics. She repeatedly emphasized how helpful her self-hypnosis had been throughout her treatment and beyond.  It had, she claimed, given her back a sense of control, the ability to remain calm, think clearly, and manage her symptoms.

The strength of the human spirit is inspiring, and my conviction is that if one can overcome fear and despair, then Hope and Determination can work wonders. We have designed our audio files, with that aim in mind. All it takes is a drop of imagination…….and the ripple effects might amaze you.

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