Pancreatic, Carcinoid, Stomach and Lung Cancer Awareness Month: Beyond “You Are Getting Sleepy”: Cancer and Hynotherapy

I’m going to kind of go out on a limb here when I discuss one of the treatments I use for many ailments, but also for cancer, and you may think to yourselves: “That Candida.”

But I figure anyone who has stayed with me through my harangue on exercise, my advocating pets and plants for your illness, and–above all–my assertion that other people’s prayers can make a difference in your health, well, this is a hardy readership, not easily scared-off.

So I bring to my blog information about this treatment that I’ve found to be extremely helpful, if people can get over the “you-are-getting-sleepy” image of some movie-image therapist boring the patient to sleep by dangling his pocket watch.

In fact, I don’t even have a pocket watch–and am not familiar with anyone who does, unless you count the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland–which you probably don’t.

I’ve found–and so has study after study (and you know I’ll quote some of them to you, do I ever let you down on that front?)–that hypnotherapy can make a major difference for a number of conditions:  smoking cessation , weight loss, addictions, tics and hiccups, fear of flying  ( I’ll come back to address some of these and its other uses). For today’s purposes, however, I’m examining the use of hypnotherapy in the treatment of side effects from–and maybe even in the treatment of the–cancer itself.

Okay, I’m imagining that you’re still with me. Because really, it’s not at all as wild as you might think.

First let’s address side effects. The two most widely shared treatment-related side effects, for any type of cancer, are pain and nausea.

Researchers went right to the heart of the matter when they studied patients who had received bone marrow transplants. The study, with one of those creative titles I always appreciate, was published under the title “Hypnosis or cognitive behavioral training for the reduction of pain and nausea during cancer treatment: A controlled clinical trial” in the journal Pain (all citations are below–see Syrjala). Researchers divided the subjects into four groups, with one receiving hypnosis, two receiving cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and three and four serving as controls, but where group three still had access to a therapist (group four had “treatment as usual,” according to the study, which sounds to me like they got shafted).

And sure enough, hypnosis was found to be more effective at reducing the pain than talk therapy or CBT, which was found to be completely useless at controlling pain in this study. Hypnosis did help slightly with nausea here, but in this study CBT helped that symptom just as much.

In a study I found fascinating, a Dr. Montgomery and his researchers randomly assigned 200 women scheduled to undergo a lumpectomy or excisional breast biopsy to either a “nondirective empathic listening session” (sounds nice, doesn’t it?)–or to 15 minutes of pre-surgery hypnosis. The findings were astounding. The group who received hypnotherapy before surgery needed less medication during surgery (specifically the sedative propofol and the analgesic lidocaine, for the detail-oriented).  And, interestingly enough, this group spent an average of 10.60 fewer minutes in surgery than the control group (which pleased the hospital to no end, as less time in surgery = more cost savings).

And, the paper goes on to say, “patients in the hypnosis group reported less post-surgical pain intensity, pain unpleasantness, nausea, fatigue, discomfort, and emotional upset than controls–all differences considered to be statistically significant.”

The studies about pain minimization through hypnosis go on and on–and standard empathic listening takes a beating. I include this next study because it reiterates the point–but really because I could easily link you to it, in case you wanted to see a randomly controlled trial (RCT–scientists think that talk is so sexy) for yourself, and throw around the key terms when in scientific company. This study wins points with me, simply because it has some zip and zing in its title, which is “Beneficial effects of hypnosis and adverse effects of empathic attention during percutaneous tumor treatment: When being nice does not suffice.” Now that’s cute, right? I’ll try not to pre-chew this for you, but it does support the theory that hypnosis patients experience less pain (and, it points out, less anxiety), and receive fewer pain drugs than those in control units, even less than those who received empathic (I do like “nice”) listening.

And let’s return to chemo-related nausea, for a moment, since I feel we left hypnotherapy sounding like it couldn’t hold its own on that front. A study by Marchioro (and I just pick one study out of many that indicate hypnosis’ effectiveness in  treating chemotherapy-related nausea) analyzed 16 cancer patients who not only vomited after chemo, but now had what’s called “anticipatory vomiting,” or vomiting in advance of the treatment, mostly as a conditioned response and due to anxiety. His results were astonishing.

After hypnotherapy all–and I mean every last one of the subjects–were cured of their anticipatory nausea and vomiting. The symptom simply disappeared before chemo treatments. There was a great improvement in post-chemo nausea as well.

cancer and depression

Hypnosis is effective in improving a number of other treatment-related side effects as well. As an example I just select one, the common breast cancer side effect of hot flashes. A randomized study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology again found hypnosis’ utility in treating self-reported anxiety and depression, just like our friendly “Nice does not suffice” study found. But, more relevant, by the end of the treatment period, hot flash scores (computed by multiplying frequency of occurrence by average severity) decreased 68% in the hypnosis control group. Incidentally, the study found hypnotherapy also helped improve sleep.

The research on hypnotherapy’s positive impact on pain and treatment-related side effects is abundant and conclusive. But what I find most exciting and potentially life-changing is the suggestion that hypnotherapy just might possibly be able to alter the course of the cancer itself.

Some early research is out there–and I find it compelling (or did I lose you at “hello,” in a reverse Jerry Maguire move?). Hang in there with me just a few moments more, and see if you could buy it.

In a paper with surely one of the oddest juxtapositions of ailments I’ve ever seen, “The hypnotic control of blood flow and  pain: the cure of warts and the potential for the use of hypnosis in the treatment  of cancer,” researchers used a well-established power of hypnosis–the ability to control blood flow–to theorize how it might, then, be used, to treat cancer. The simplest use would be as an adjunct to chemo- or radiation-therapy, in which hypnosis would assist the patient in delivering the drug, via blood flow, straight to the tumor.

But even more exciting to the researchers is the prospect that, while controlling blood flow to the tumors, by cutting off the flow, patients could potentially destroy their tumors outright.

It’s a compelling theory. On a somewhat different tack, Hudacek taught hypnotic guided-imagery to early stage breast cancer patients–and found, aside from the by-now-standard improvement in depression, increased natural killer (NK) cell counts after 2 months of hypnosis treatment. NK cells are pivotal in the rejection of tumors.

Follow-up studies found that hypnosis could lead to increased total T-cell count (T-cells are white blood cells which increase immunity) and a decrease (hang on to your hats here) of  circulating levels of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α),  a bad factor, as you might suspect. Well, I can do a tiny bit better than that. The major role of the TNF-alpha is in regulating immune cells. Disregulation in TNF-alpha production has been directly correlated with cancer.

In a related study (see Hall) which strips off some of the cloak of secrecy, hypnotic subjects again increased the responsiveness of their T cells  when given the suggestion under trance that their white blood cells were like “powerful sharks” destroying “weak germs.”

So what’s the upshot on the effectiveness of hypnotherapy in treating the cancer itself? Look–I wouldn’t forego chemotherapy and radiation treatment in the hope that envisioning my white blood cells as great white sharks would put me in the clear.

But given what we know about hypnosis’ positive effects on pain, nausea and other side effects, and given its own minimal (if any) side effect profile, I guess I’d be willing to try to assert control over my blood flow. Now that I know I don’t have to be seduced by a dangling pocket-watch, especially, I’m all gung-ho.


Clawson TA Jr, Swade RH. The hypnotic control of blood flow and  pain: the cure of warts and the potential for the use of hypnosis in the treatment  of cancer. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 1975; 17(3):160-169.

Elkins G. Randomized trial of a hypnosis intervention for treatment of hot flashes among breast cancer survivors. Journal of Clinical Oncology 2008; 26(31):5022-6.

Hall HR. Hypnosis and the immune system: A review with implications for cancer and the psychology of healing. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 1982; 25(2/3):92-103.

Hudacek KD. A review of the effects of hypnosis on the immune system in breast cancer patients: a brief communication. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis 2007; 55(4):411-25.

Lang Elvira, et al. Beneficial effects of hypnosis and adverse effects of empathic attention during percutaneous tumor treatment: When being nice does not suffice. Journal of Vascular and Interventional Radiology 2008; 19(6):897–905.

Marchioro G, et al. Hypnosis in the treatment of anticipatory nausea and vomiting in patients receiving cancer chemotherapy. Oncology 2000, 59(2):100-104.

Montgomery G, et al. A randomized clinical trial of a brief hypnosis intervention to control side effects in breast surgery patients. Journal of National Cancer Institute 2007; 99(17):1304-1312.

Syrjala, KL, Cummings C., & Donaldson GW. Hypnosis or cognitive behavioral training for the reduction of pain and nausea during cancer treatment: A controlled clinical trial. Pain 1992; 50(2):237-238.

Vickers A, Zollman C. Clinical Review: Hypnosis & Relaxation Therapies. British Medical Journal 1999; 319(7221):1346–49.



I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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