Analysis of the Use of Guided Imagery for Cancer Treatment

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Guided imagery has been identified as one of the most frequently recommended complementary cancer therapies online (Schmidt and Ernst, 2004), and this technique harnesses the power of imagination to form a mental representation of a place or situation which is then perceived by the body through the senses (Post-White, 2002). Everything from the voice tone and the pacing of the language to the choice of music is designed to create an immersive mind state to catalyze changes in the mind, body and spirit.

This user-friendly form of meditation has become a well-established practice for cancer patients, particularly in the United States. Visualization and guided imagery techniques were first introduced as a psychological intervention for cancer patients by the pioneering husband and wife medical team, the Simontons, during the 1970’s. Since then, a great deal of research has come along to back up their work, including the discovery that there is no real difference between the pattern of neurons fired in the brain between performing an action or imagining the same action (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004).

Imagery is a truly powerful therapeutic tool with ancient roots, although it was derided by Western science and medicine since shamanistic practices were challenged by the rise of modern science until the 19th century, when developments in psychology and social science meant that imagery was once more investigated. Founders of modern psychotherapy, Freud (1900) and then Jung (1964) were both interested in the capacity of mental images to convey important psychological information. Later, discoveries in neuroscience in the 20th prompted even greater expansion of the interest in guided imagery.

Thanks to this exploration, it’s now known that imagery has many applications in health care, particularly in the treatment of cancer patients. The Simontons delved into its benefits while working at a cancer research institute in Texas during the 1970’s and 80’s, studying the impact of visualization with patients. Their clinical observations led them to believe that patients could be helped by learning to imagine their immune system overpowering cancer cells to strengthen self-healing.

This is only one way in which cancer patients may use guided imagery to manage their illness, however. Psycho-oncology, for example, emphasizes the importance of psychological factors on the progression of cancer.

We still do not understand exactly the capacity of guided imagery to effect psychological and physiological changes in the body, although there is a growing base of evidence showing its role in pain management and control of symptoms (Roffe et all, 2006), plus the impact of guided visualization on enhancing a patient’s psychological capacity to manage the illness. Kolbaca & Fox completed a study in 1999 that demonstrated the effects of guided imagery on improving the comfort of women undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer that’s especially groundbreaking.

Additionally, guided imagery techniques are often used to bring calmness and the sense of space necessary to relieve pain and anxiety (Speigel, 1993; Lang and Paul, 1994), and it may also be used to encourage the receptivity of treatment (Simonton et all, 1978). This form of therapy allows individuals to feel a connection between the mind and body, aiding in the empowerment necessary to help many overcome the difficulties in life, and in treatment.

The use of guided imagery for cancer has typically focused on four primary areas: pain management, influencing surgical outcomes, improving quality of life and boosting immunity (Lee, 1999). Sometimes this therapy encourages patients to direct their thoughts to the location of a tumor or imagine their white blood cells attacking the cancer, while other times it involves guiding the imagination to a peaceful situation where they can feel calm, safe and happy.

With over twenty years of research findings in many clinical trials, it’s surprising that guided imagery has not yet become a universal, affordable and preventative health tool, much like aspirin is used to reduce the likelihood of heart attacks or stroke in the future. Guided imagery is a powerful, low-cost and effective tool that may be used by anyone, in conjunction with traditional cancer treatments.


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Kolcaba K & Fox C (1999) The effects of guided imagery on comfort of women with early stage breast cancer undergoing radiation therapy. Oncology Nursing Forum. 26(1): 67-72.
Lee R. 1999. Guided imagery as supportive therapy in cancer treatment. Alternative Medicine Alert 2: 61–64.
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