How hypnosis is helping me to overcome my cancer
ELEANOR COWIE April 24 2006
PAT Kavanagh whispers her carefully considered answers while apologising for the toll that chemotherapy has taken on her body. "This is me talking normally," she says quietly. "I'm not trying to whisper. It's the chemo and the cancer."
Kavanagh, a mother of two from Glasgow, is five months into treatment for acute leukaemia. As she sits in the oncology day ward of Gartnavel Hospital, Glasgow, her elegant frame is thin and frail. But her face, though drawn and tired, is bright, and she looks at least 10 years younger than her 55 years.
Kavanagh is about to start her third course of chemotherapy before having a bone-marrow transplant this summer. Needless to say, recent months have been traumatic for her and her family. "With chemo, your body is changed, literally, by the chemicals. You look different, you have no sense of smell or taste. You feel like your body is not your own anymore. You have to give it over to doctors to treat. You feel as though you are no longer yourself. It's an awful feeling."
Angela Wood, practice manager of the Harvest Clinic in Glasgow and another cancer patient, understands those sentiments all too well. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in June last year, Wood says she found it hard to cope at first. Both she and Kavanagh have, however, found help in clinical hypnotherapy.
"It helped me to relax, to take control of my mind and emotions and then focus on getting better, rather than imagining how bad the situation was or might get," says Wood. Kavanagh agrees: "Having hypnotherapy as a complementary treatment to my medical care has given me back a sense of being comfortable within my own body. At the end of the sessions I always feel more confident and at peace in my body. I don't know if the therapy affects your recovery time, but it must have some impact on your underlying chemistry."
Kavanagh is one of several cancer patients in Glasgow who are benefiting from a pioneering project in which complementary therapies, such as clinical hypnosis, massage and reiki, are being made available to cancer patients through the NHS. The project, running in the 18-bed haemo-oncology ward at Gartnavel, which treats cancers of the blood, began in October last year. Consultants and nurses are united in support, and it is planned that it will continue indefinitely. The team of four therapists is headed by clinical hypnotherapist Brenda Wallace, herself a former cancer patient.
Dr Ted Fitzsimmons, head of oncology at Gartnavel, is among a group of consultants at the hospital who refer patients to the hypnotherapists. "I'm a die-hard oncologist," he says. "I don't have any views on hypnotherapy having clinical significance. But what I will say is that the ward sister and other nurses have told us that patients are much calmer and more relaxed as a result of the treatments. If it works for them and the nurses are pleased with it, I'm happy. I'm sure it is effective at what it does." Ward sister Nan Ramsay adds: "All the patients who have had either hypnotherapy, reiki or massage have come back for more, which can only be a good thing."
According to Fitzsimmons, patients with blood cancers often struggle with feelings of guilt and blame. "Many struggle to come to terms with how and why they have the disease," he says. "With other cancers, how you live can be a factor: lung cancer and smoking, for instance. But blood cancers are so different, and patients can blame themselves even though they have no reason to. It can be a very traumatic time, over and above the actual treatment of the disease. So, with the complementary therapies, if patients feel better and are more relaxed then they can concentrate on getting
better. The therapies are particularly useful for those who are in hospital for long periods."
When most people think of hypnosis, they imagine Paul McKenna or Derren Brown on stage, hypnotising someone to overcome a phobia or to behave as though they're drunk. Until recently, hypnotherapy was not regarded as a credible treatment and often its proponents are dismissed for practising a discipline that has no real medical basis.
Yet in spite of this, and, indeed, as a result of the Gartnavel project, attitudes are changing. Angela Trainer, co-founder of the Harvest Clinic and a leading figure in the UK clinical hypnotherapy community, describes the situation as "a quiet revolution". She says the consultants with whom she has contact are finally beginning to view the treatment differently – and a number of Scottish hospices, including the Marie Curie centre in Glasgow, allow clinical hypnotherapists to work voluntarily with patients and relatives. Less than a month ago, the first televised surgical procedure using hypnosis rather than anaesthetic was screened on Channel 4.
Dr Mary Frame, a former GP, now heads the palliative care unit at the Marie Curie hospice, where they have been using hypnotherapy for three years. "Hypnotherapy is good for anything anxiety-related. It gives people a bit more of a feeling of control. You can teach people to distract themselves and, in doing so, you take their minds off the pain they are in. Pain is always worse if you are anxious, so obviously, if you lessen the anxiety, the pain will lessen," she says.
Brenda Wallace, from Gartnavel, imagines a day when there will be a complementary-therapy unit in every hospital in Scotland. "We don't offer false hope, nor do we offer cures, but we are successful in helping eople manage whatever it is they are struggling with.
"We support people through their treatment and look at ways to facilitate their recovery, or, indeed, give them extra tools to deal with the treatment they are going through. Perhaps with more support and funding behind us we can take forward the existing clinical evidence that supports the use of hypnotherapy in clinical conditions. It's an exciting time."
So, what clinical evidence is there? "Let's get one thing straight," says Angela Trainer, "clinical hypnotherapy is not hocus-pocus. We have suffered a great deal from the Hammer House of Horror image of hypnosis. We don't put anyone into anything that is not already a natural state. The hypnotic trance people often refer to is a perfectly normal state. We all go in and out of it all day, every day. You can slip into it at your desk, staring at your computer screen, or when driving the car."
Clinical hypnotherapy uses suggestion and visualisation to help with a problem or illness. The unconscious mind is more receptive to suggestion when someone is in a relaxed state, and the hypnotherapist's aim is simple – to meet the emotional and mental needs of patients and relatives by using hypnotherapy techniques so they can understand and manage their condition. The therapist makes the patient comfortable and then might, for instance, get them to focus on a time when they felt strong and in control. They can then call up those feelings at moments when they feel distressed and powerless.
Mary-Jo Tuite, a cancer patient at Gartnavel, says the therapy has reduced her anxiety levels. "I was a bit sceptical at first," she says, "but now I'm a convert. I thought about it as a little challenge for myself, if nothing else." After a number of sessions of reiki, a type of massage, she was thoroughly impressed. "It was blissful – so relaxing and calming," she adds.
Two beds down from Tuite is Mrs McCourtney, who was already interested in alternative therapies before she was diagnosed with cancer. "Still, I was a little sceptical of what could be achieved," she says. "I had heard reiki was supposed to channel your body's own energy, but I couldn't understand how it would do that if no-one was touching you. But I was very pleasantly surprised. It was quite amazing."
Before she went for the therapy, McCourtney was anxious about her illness. "The treatment sessions helped me to relax my mind and feel good. When I came back, I slept for an hour, it was so soothing."
As his patients recount their experiences of complementary treatment, Dr Fitzsimmons listens intently. "Many of these patients are very sick indeed," he says. "They are undergoing some very heavy treatments. We have a terrific support team here and the complementary guys are part of that now. They help patients to feel better within themselves. It's a good thing for them, and they enjoy it and say they get some benefit. And that sounds good to me."