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Guided Imagery for Cancer

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Updated May 31, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

For people coping with cancer, guided imagery may help alleviate a number of emotional and physical problems. A technique that involves using visualization to achieve deep relaxation, guided imagery has been found to ease stress, improve mood, reduce pain, and offer several other health benefits to cancer patients.

Using Guided Imagery in Cancer Care

While guided imagery cannot fight cancer itself, the technique may help treat certain cancer-related complications. Although there are many different approaches to guided imagery, the technique often involves visualizing yourself in a peaceful place. When used as an adjunct treatment for cancer (and other health conditions), guided imagery may also involve visualizing specific images associated with healing.

Learn more about how to practice guided imagery.

Benefits of Guided Imagery for Cancer Patients

Guided imagery appears to increase comfort and support psychological well-being in people with cancer, according to a 2005 research review of six clinical trials. Here's a look at other studies on guided imagery and cancer care:

1) Guided Imagery and Cancer Pain

In a 2003 pilot study of 62 hospitalized cancer patients currently experiencing pain, researchers found that using guided imagery audiotapes helped reduce pain intensity. Study results suggest that patients with greater visualization abilities may be more likely to experience pain reduction when using guided imagery.

2) Guided Imagery and Mood

Guided imagery may help boost mood and improve quality of life for people with cancer, according to a 2001 study of eight people with a history of cancer. For 10 weeks, half the participants took part in weekly sessions that combined guided imagery and music. Compared to study subjects assigned to a waitlist, the treatment group experienced greater improvements in mood and quality of life.

3) Guided Imagery and Immune Response

Preliminary research indicates that guided imagery may improve immune function in people with cancer. In a 2008 pilot study of 28 breast cancer patients, for instance, those who took part in a guided imagery and relaxation program prior to undergoing surgery experienced increased activity in natural killer cells (known to play a key role in immune defense).

Should You Use Guided Imagery in Cancer Treatment?

Although there's no evidence that guided imagery can directly combat cancer, using guided imagery may be of some benefit to cancer patients (especially in terms of emotional health). A number of other alternative therapies and techniques (such as yoga, meditation, and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) may also help you cope with cancer-related complications (as well as the adverse effects of cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy).

If you're interested in using guided imagery (or any type of alternative therapy) as an adjunct to your standard cancer care, talk to your doctor about finding the healing approach best suited to your needs.

Sources:

Burns DS. "The effect of the bonny method of guided imagery and music on the mood and life quality of cancer patients." J Music Ther. 2001 Spring;38(1):51-65.

Eremin O, Walker MB, Simpson E, Heys SD, Ah-See AK, Hutcheon AW, Ogston KN, Sarkar TK, Segar A, Walker LG. "Immuno-modulatory effects of relaxation training and guided imagery in women with locally advanced breast cancer undergoing multimodality therapy: a randomised controlled trial." Breast. 2009 18(1):17-25.

Kwekkeboom KL, Kneip J, Pearson L. "A pilot study to predict success with guided imagery for cancer pain." Pain Manag Nurs. 2003 4(3):112-23.

Roffe L, Schmidt K, Ernst E. "A systematic review of guided imagery as an adjuvant cancer therapy." Psychooncology. 2005 14(8):607-17.

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