When the concept of guided imagery for cancer was introduced to the general public back in the eighties, only a handful of doctors accepted the idea.

However, as the works of pioneers like Bernie Siegel, Larry LeShan, Stephanie and Carl Simonton and others gained traction and attention from the press, many patients soon embraced guided imagery. Of course, there were a handful of people who, in their zeal, tried to sell it as a cure for cancer.

That group caused the medical community to be alarmed. The very idea of guided imagery being used as a cure for cancer will certainly draw patients and their families away from conventional treatments. And it was easy to see why, especially due to the adverse side effects of chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.

It is also worthwhile to note that back then, guided imagery was slightly different from the way it is currently practiced. In the past, the main focus was the visual — your body winning over the cancer cells.

One of the main reasons why guided imagery for cancer has changed is because not everyone can perform visual imagining. Some people need to engage their other senses, including hearing, smell, taste and feel. And in some cases, patients need to tap into their emotions, too.

Despite the massive appeal of guided imagery, or visualization as it was popularly known back then, there was limited available research that attests to the efficacy of this treatment. However, clinicians and pioneering researchers already identified some of the effects associated with guided imagery that cancer patients currently benefit from. These include reduction of the unpleasant side effects of the disease and treatments, improved quality of life, and increased energy, confidence, motivation and hope.

During the following decades, research after research began to highlight the positive effects of guided imagery and other related treatments at the cellular level. In one study released by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, it was discovered that hypnotic imagery led to the increase of natural killer or NK cells.

In another study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, researchers detailed how guided imagery affects the immune system, the white blood cells and the lymphocytes.

A lot of other studies support the conclusions arrived at by these researches. Although the idea of guided imagery actually healing cancer is very unlikely, the current body of evidence indicates that it can help improve the immune function of cancer patients. Actually if the person doing imagery really believe in it 100%, without any doubts, if the person doing imagery is cleaning all three bodies (physical, mental and emotional) there is a huge possibility to cure anything, including cancer!

Some of the medical research related with guided-imagery:

1. The effects of guided imagery on the immune system: a critical review

by Trakhtenberg EC (Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto, California 94303, USA.)

Abstract: The research on the effect of guided imagery (GI) on immune system is reviewed and, accordingly, a direction for future research is proposed. Studies suggest that: GI can reduce stress and elevate the immune system; cell-specific imagery affects corresponding WBCs, neutrophils, or lymphocytes; decreases in WBC count occur in the initial stages of GI and relaxation due to fluctuations in WBC production or margination; and changes in WBC count or adherence occur earlier in medical patients. Directions for further investigations: Definition of the ideal WBC count; the effects of long-term practice of GI; and influence of cell-specific imagery on WBCs.

2. The effect of hypnotic-guided imagery on psychological well-being and immune function in patients with prior breast cancer

by Bakke AC, Purtzer MZ, Newton P  (Department of Pathology, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR 97201, USA)


Objective: To determine the effect of hypnotic-guided imagery on immune function and psychological parameters in patients being treated for Stage I or II breast cancer.

Methods:To determine the effects of hypnotic-guided imagery on immune function and psychological parameters, the following study was undertaken. Psychological profiles, natural killer (NK) cell number and activity were measured at baseline, after the 8-week imagery training program and at the 3-month follow-up.

Results:There were significant increases in improvement in depression (P<.04) and increase in absolute number of NK cells, but these were not maintained at the 3-month follow-up. Hypnotic-guided imagery did cause some transient changes in psychological well-being and immune parameters. However, these changes were not retained after the treatment ended.

Conclusions: Many studies during the last 15 years have demonstrated interactions between the central nervous and the immune systems. While a negative effect of stress on immune responses has been demonstrated, there have also been published reports that psychological treatments can positively alter the immune system. However, given the complexities of immune system kinetics, the transient nature of any psychological effect and the insensitivity of immune assays, our study indicates that there is a role for hypnotic-guided imagery as an adjuvant therapy.

3. A review of the effects of hypnosis on the immune system in breast cancer patients: a brief communication

by  Hudacek KD (University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA)

Abstract: In order to make a recommendation about the use of hypnosis as adjuvant therapy in the treatment of breast cancer, 2 studies assessing the immunological effects of hypnosis in patients with early stage breast cancer were evaluated: (a) an experiment that taught hypnotic guided-imagery therapy to patients and (b) one that provided participants with home visits and autogenic training. Both investigations demonstrated improvement in depression and increased natural killer (NK) cell counts after 2 months of hypnosis treatment. However, neither study determined the clinical significance of hypnosis in the setting of cancer, and therefore future experiments are needed to relate the immune-mediated effects of hypnosis to hard clinical outcomes like survival rates.