Cancer and Biofield Therapies

The human body is continually abuzz with energy. While people give this energy different names – some call it chi (or qi); others, life force or prana; some, electricity – they are all referring to the same dynamic force that powers the body and makes it alive.

A subset of the discipline of energy medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, biofield therapies are treatments that seek to work with this vital energy and use it to promote the body’s own healing abilities.

A 2007 review* by Beverly Pierce, MLS, MA, RN, CHTP, examines the current state of biofield therapy research, its use in treating cancer patients, and the potential benefits of biofield therapy use among loved ones, caregivers, and oncology professionals.

What are biofield therapies?

Pierce, the director of Integrative Medicine Services at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, MD, observes that biofield therapies are healing techniques based on a number of fundamental beliefs:

• The human body contains a subtle energy system that reaches beyond the physical body.

• That energy system is part of a universal energy system that flows through and is available to all living beings.

• A free and balanced energy flow within the body fosters the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

• Disease or disorder can be detected in the body’s energy system, which can be manipulated by energy practitioners to promote the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

• Compassion and conscious healing intent are vital to effective biofield therapy.

• Biofield practitioners must not necessarily touch a patient’s body, and may mentally treat patients from a distance. (This form of mind-body medicine includes prayer and mental healing.)

While all of these tenets of biofield therapies are significant, Pierce stresses the critical importance of practitioner intent. “Using the same skill as is used in meditation, practitioners must know how to center themselves deeply and quickly, and to consciously set an intention for the person’s highest good,” she says.

Also known by terms such as spiritual healing, energy healing, energy medicine, and laying on of hands, biofield therapies include these five modalities discussed in Pierce’s review:

Therapeutic Touch (TT) – A six-step procedure created to assess and treat the human biofield. Developed in the U.S. in the 1970s with the intention of teaching it to nurses.

Healing Touch (HT) – A curriculum developed in the U.S. in the 1980s to promote well-being of the mind, body, and spirit by using gentle touch to stimulate the body’s healing energy. Incorporates a range of different biofield therapy techniques.

Polarity Therapy (PT) – A modality developed in the U.S. in the mid-1900s to resolve energy blockages and encourage normal, unrestricted energy flow throughout the body.

Qigong – A millennia-old Chinese technique that seeks to connect with and influence the body’s energy through meditation, movement, relaxing, breathing, and mind-body integration.

Reiki – An ancient Japanese method of healing, administered through touch, to promote relaxation, health and well-being.

Although biofield therapies are gaining increasing understanding and acceptance in Western cultures, many people still do not believe them to have legitimate therapeutic value – making it challenging to implement them within many mainstream U.S. health care institutions.

“For thousands of years, many cultures have understood and accepted that human beings are much more than what exists within the envelope of the skin,” Pierce says. “But because Western cultures are much more materially-based, we tend to believe in the things we can see, hear, and touch – even though we know that there are things that exist that we can’t see – like air and microwaves, for example.”

And while some people are skeptical when they hear about these kinds of treatments, most are interested enough that they’re willing to try it, Pierce says.

“We’re talking about therapies that are very low-risk, simple, and non-invasive,” she says. “Most people find that they lower their anxiety levels tremendously.”

Biofield therapies in the oncology arena

Because they often undergo months of difficult treatment and experience high levels of stress, fear, and other difficult emotions, cancer patients can particularly benefit from biofield therapies, Pierce says.

In the course of medical treatment, cancer patients – and people who are very ill in general – “are often touched in ways that are either neutral or negative…invasive ways that are more about performing tasks – like drawing blood, for example – and less about the patient’s experience,” she says. “Biofield therapies are caring and non-invasive, and they focus only on the patient and his or her relaxation.”

Research data has begun to support Pierce’s belief. About two decades after biofield therapy data was first published, researchers began looking at the use of these treatments specifically in cancer patients – and according to Pierce’s review, the findings are encouraging.

For example, a 1998 study looked at two groups of breast cancer patients before and after surgery. One group received TT and was engaged in dialogue; the other group had a period of rest and was engaged in dialogue. Although there were no other differences between the groups, the patients who received TT reported experiencing lower pre-operative anxiety than those who rested.

In another 1998 study comparing TT to periods of rest (among cancer patients in a palliative care unit), patients who received TT reported higher levels of overall well-being than those who rested. Patients reported on components of well-being that included pain, nausea, depression, anxiety, breathing, activity, appetite, relaxation, and inner peace.

Pierce says that some of the most compelling data came from a 2003 randomized clinical trial of 230 cancer patients conducted at United Hospital in St. Paul, Minn.

Designed by well-known oncologist, “quack watcher,” and biofield therapy skeptic Irving J. Lerner, the study compared the effects of massage therapy and Healing Touch with the non-invasive presence of a nurse. According to patient self-reports, HT did a significantly better job of reducing pain and fatigue, improving mood, and lowering heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure.

“The fact that this was such a big study – and that it was designed by a conventional practitioner who had very little confidence in the therapeutic benefits of touch therapies – makes the data particularly valuable,” Pierce says, adding that the results of a “smaller, but well designed” 2004 study are also especially promising.

Seventy-eight women with cancer received either HT or a mock treatment, and they were asked to report the effects of their therapy on nine measures of health-related quality of life (HRQOL). The group that received HT reported better outcomes on all measures than the mock treatment group. The results of three of the measures – physical functioning, vitality, and pain – were statistically significant.

It should be noted, however, that HRQOL reporting – the measure by which nearly all biofield therapy research is evaluated – is not considered valid data by everyone, Pierce says.

“These studies offer very little empirical evidence [that which can be observed and measured by others], and skeptics view HRQOL measures as being soft and fluffy,” she says, adding that while conventional patient wellness measures are of course very important, so is the patient’s experience of his or her illness. “Patients are the authorities on how they feel, and in addition to being concerned with how they are doing physically, we need to be asking, What is this patient’s experience and how can we help it to be better?”

In fact, Pierce believes that anyone touched by cancer can benefit from biofield therapies – and research has recently begun investigating this possibility.

“The cancer experience is profoundly challenging on all levels – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational – for all involved – patients, family, and friends,” she says in the review. “Not least among those affected are the professionals who make cancer their life’s work.”

While there is virtually no physical risk to biofield therapies, Pierce says people should be open to the possibility that uncomfortable emotions may surface.

“Seriously ill patients often have a lot of emotions right under the surface – things like anxiety, grief, and fear,” she says. “During touch therapies, it’s not uncommon for people to have an emotional release that surprises them. Although such a release may be disconcerting to some patients, it usually ends up being a very helpful and positive experience.”

“There’s something that shifts in the energy of the room when you are in the presence of [biofield therapies],” she says. “I can’t prove it, and we don’t have the instrumentation available yet to measure it – but just being around this kind of energy and healing intent is relaxing, reassuring, and helpful, both to patients and their families. And anything that improves the patient’s experience…that makes the patient feel better…is valuable.”

If you’d like to learn more about biofield therapies, speak with your doctor or visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

* Pierce B, The Use of Biofield Therapies in Cancer Care. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 2007 Apr:11(2):253-8

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