Benefits of Therapeutic Touch for People With Cancer
Many cancer centers are now offering healing touch as an integrative treatment for cancer. Simply speaking, healing touch is an alternative medicine modality in which a provider uses touch to facilitate healing. While referred to sometimes as an “alternative treatment” it is not used “instead” of traditional treatments for cancer, but rather can be combined with conventional treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. What exactly is healing touch, what benefits may it have for people with living with cancer, and what are the possible side effects?
What is Healing Touch?
Healing touch (also called therapeutic touch) is an alternative medicine practice that involves the use of the hands to promote healing. The theory behind this therapy is that the motion of a healing touch practitioner’s hands over a person’s body may help balance the energy fields in a way that promotes healing and well-being. During healing touch, a therapist may use a light touch, or may not directly touch a patient at all.
In integrative oncology, healing touch is classified as a type of biofield therapy, a form of energy therapy. Other biofield therapies include qigong, therapeutic touch, reiki, and polarity therapy.
Certification in healing touch is available through the American Holistic Nurses Association. There are six levels of training. When a practitioner has completed the first three levels, she is considered qualified for certification.
Healing Touch and Cancer Treatment
It’s important to note that when healing touch is used for cancer, it is used as an “integrative” or “complementary” treatment. This means that it is used in addition to other forms of treatment, such as surgery and chemotherapy. Integrative treatments are most often added to help people cope with the symptoms of cancer and cancer treatments (such as pain and anxiety), and are not used to treat the cancer itself.
Benefits for People With Cancer
Healing touch has been reported to increase relaxation and impart a sense of well-being. It may also have benefits that apply specifically to people who are living with cancer. Some of these that have been evaluated in studies (though the research is limited) include:
Improved Immune Response
One study found that people who underwent healing touch had less toxicity to cells in the immune system (natural killer cells) that play a role in fighting cancer.
Studies suggest that people who have healing touch performed along with standard treatments for cancer were found to be, on average, less depressed.
Improved Pain Management
Healing touch may decrease the intensity of pain experienced by people with cancer. This, in turn, may decrease the amount of pain medication needed, and hence the side effects that pain medications can cause. In this era in which we are facing an opioid epidemic (though people who truly need opioids for the management of cancer pain rarely become addicted), any modality that may reduce the amount of pain medication needed should be evaluated.
One study looking specifically at cancer-related fatigue in people going through radiation treatment found that healing touch was associated with a significantly reduced level of fatigue.
Several clinical trials are in progress studying the effects of healing touch on quality of life for people going through chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer. Overall, a 2016 review of the studies to date on healing touch (therapeutic touch) and cancer, concluded that healing touch appeared to have physical benefits with regard to pain, nausea, anxiety, and fatigue, with emotional benefits including improved mood, improved sense of well-being, and improved interpersonal relationships. In these studies as a whole, people with cancer found that healing touch promoted relaxation, was spiritually uplifting and improved there mobility (ability to move around and enjoy life). Certainly, there are limitations in the studies, with results being very subjective and relatively small numbers of people involved, but results reported to date support that healing touch may be a beneficial adjunct to cancer treatment for some people.
Children With Cancer and Healing Touch
Most of the studies looking at the possible benefits of healing touch for people with cancer have been done with adults. A 2013 study, however, looked that the possible benefits in children with cancer. It was found that healing touch may have a positive impact with regard to pain, stress, and fatigue in these children.
Precautions Regarding Healing Touch in Cancer
The most important thing to keep in mind when considering alternative therapies in cancer treatment is the goal of the treatment. Healing touch isn’t used as a treatment to improve survival, but rather as a method to help improve your quality of life. When used in this way, healing touch has very few side effects. On rare occasions, people may find that healing touch increases rather than decreases their anxiety. And a few people have reported feeling disoriented when they relax during a healing touch session.
How Can You Get Started?
The first place you may want to check for information on healing touch is your cancer center. Many of the larger cancer centers now offer healing touch as part of an integrative program that combines so-called alternative therapies for cancer like healing touch, with traditional or conventional therapies.
Other integrative cancer treatments that have shown some benefit for people with cancer in at least a few studies include yoga, massage, qigong, and acupuncture. “Fun” therapies such as music therapy, art therapy, and even pet therapy may help people cope with all of the physical and emotional changes that go along with a cancer diagnosis, while being pleasurable at the same time.
If healing touch isn’t available at your center, ask your oncologist if she has any suggestions. Talking to people in your support group, online forums, or Facebook groups may also give you ideas on ways to connect with people who perform healing touch in your community.
I am Dr. Christopher Loynes and I specialize in Bone Marrow Transplantation, Hematologic Neoplasms, and Leukemia. I graduated from the American University of Beirut, Beirut. I work at New York Bone Marrow Transplantation
Hospital and Hematologic Neoplasms. I am also the Faculty of Medicine at the American University of New York.