Hypnosis, often thought of as a party piece where suggestible people are made fools of, is being given a new lease of life. Dr Leslie Walker, a lecturer in mental health at the University of Aberdeen, has found it a useful tool for cancer patients suffering from the side-effects of chemotherapy.
Although not all chemotherapy treatments produce side-effects, some are so devastating that patients have been known to give up altogether even though their prognosis was otherwise good. Nausea, vomiting, anxiety and hair-loss can sometimes be so debilitating that the patient will often feel unable to continue with treatment.
Not only can the symptoms be experienced as a direct response to the drugs, the patient is also often affected by what Walker calls ‘anticipatory side-effects’, and can become nauseous just thinking about it.
The mind’s role in this was underlined recently by Penny Brohn, a pioneer of alternative medicine in the field of cancer, and founder of the Bristol Cancer Help Centre. ‘I had a letter about a cancer patient who knew she was ill, but asked not to be told what was wrong with her, or what treatment she was undergoing.
‘Her husband was told that she had cancer and would be treated with chemotherapy. The oblivious patient underwent the treatment and experienced no side-effects. The husband became nauseous, depressed and his hair started to fall out.’
In a study involving 18 patients with different forms of cancer, and varying chemotherapy treatment, Walker found that his ‘nausea management training’, by means of hypnotherapy, had good results.
Patients are taught a simple technique using imagery or visualisation, and relaxation methods, which break down the fear associated in their minds with chemotherapy treatment. Patients also learn to practise by themselves.
‘Following treatment, all patients including two who were refusing to have further chemotherapy were prepared to continue and complete the chemotherapy course. In addition to preventing the worsening of side-effects, some patients actually improved, ‘ said Walker.
Brohn has had similar successes at the Bristol centre, to such an extent that Dr Karol Sikora, a senior oncologist at Hammersmith Hospital in London, has invited her to send in a team of consultants.
‘We are very interested in this new method, ‘ he said. ‘I would describe Penny’s approach as complementary medicine. They are successful because they are not extreme in their approach; they don’t expect the patient to reject conventional Western medicine, but combine their techniques with radiotherapy and chemotherapy.’
One of Brohn’s favourite, and most successful, visualisation techniques can best be described as the ‘champagne method’.
‘Two women came to see me recently who had experienced severe burning from radiotherapy. It was so severe, they were considering giving up the treatment. We devised a method whereby the patient, while undergoing radiotherapy, imagined that the radiation waves were actually bubbles of champagne permeating the body. This was very successful; the women found they were no longer being burned, and could continue with radiotherapy.’
According to Sikora: ‘A combination of advances in high-technology medicine and cuts in the National Health Service is leading us towards looking for different, perhaps more unorthodox approaches. What has impressed us so much with the Bristol approach is that it works and is perfectly compatible with traditional methods.’
Walker would agree with all of that, but adds the warning: ‘There are only 1,200 clinical psychologists in Britain, and the patient demand far outstrips supply in this area. I believe it is very important that hypnotherapy is carried out by a qualified clinical psychologist.
‘With an unstable personality or someone with a pyschopathic disorder, undergoing hypnosis could be like opening a Pandora’s box of mental problems, which an untrained person could not cope with.’
The BMA recommends that anyone wanting hypnotherapy should go through his or her GP. It believes the many different hypnotherapy organisations should be moving towards accepting one regulatory body.
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