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The Touch That Counts

Network - Winter 2009

By Bayan Raji

Sometimes a gentle touch is all it takes to remove our worries or pain.

When that touch comes from a trained professional who can pinpoint “energy zones” on our bodies, research suggests it may have positive effects as a supplemental treatment for the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

Healing touch therapy, developed by Colorado nurse Jane Mentgen in the 1980s, consists of light touching or near touching of these zones. People who practice healing touch believe the process cleanses the areas and helps hasten recovery.

It also is thought to help cancer patients better cope with pain from radiation therapy or to calm nerves. Studies suggest, at the very least, that during a healing touch session a patient can relax and rejuvenate.

How the therapy works

Research nurse for integrative medicine at M. D. Anderson and healing touch practitioner Noemi Peterson says the process is about connecting with another human being.

“I approach you from the standpoint of love because you are another human being, another person on a journey,” Peterson says. “Healing touch is one of the many applications that works with the body’s energy system.”

Yoga, tai chi and Reiki are other practices that refocus a person’s energy and originate from ancient ideas.

“Our ancestors were more in touch with, more aware of, this energy system, but we’ve gotten too busy with life,” Peterson says.

The method of hands-on healing tries to remove “congestion” at one of the seven energy centers that run through the middle of the body, starting at the tailbone up to the “crown” on top of the head. Congestion can be caused by pain or stress and is believed to block energy flow.

The blockage has a number of potential repercussions.

“We live in such a hurried, frantic and sometimes frenetic world we can’t help but pick up some of that stuff,” Peterson says.

Maintaining energy flow

Sometimes all it takes is one session for a patient to feel better, but, in most cases, multiple sessions are needed to remove congestion. Peterson says regularly practicing healing touch is a form of maintenance for our energy fields.

In their work, practitioners explore the energy sphere around patients to find places of congestion. In most cases, they don’t need to physically touch the patient because these places extend outside the body into the energy sphere.

Peterson says the intention of the practitioner to remove a person’s congestion is what focuses the energy. People can even try the modality at home.

“The intention is the most important thing, and the intention is to drain whatever is congesting,” she says.

Real experience

Natalia Waight's son was 3 weeks old when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005. She discovered the benefits of healing touch through the Place … of wellness at M. D. Anderson and says the therapy has helped her deal with some of the pains of cancer treatment.

Soon after her first session, she learned her cancer mass had shrunk for the first time. She is now in remission.

“Conventional chemotherapy saved my life, but participating in the activities at Place … of wellness carried me through it,” Waight says. “If it wasn’t for the complementary classes at M. D. Anderson, I don’t know where I would be.”

She says she would recommend healing touch to other patients going through chemotherapy because “chemo knocks you off your feet, off the ground,” and she feels the modality has helped her restore balance.

Breast cancer patient Jackie Caesar came to Place … of wellness for a healing touch class to find out what it was. She says she was surprised at how intuitive the practice is. She’d been having stomach pains related to her illness and treatment and was taken aback when Peterson’s hands stopped over her belly to channel energy from that region.

Helping people cope

The energy-based modality may be new to some, but it has been researched for years.

Results of a single-blinded, randomized healing touch therapy trial at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis were presented at the American Public Health Association’s 130th annual meeting in 2002. Of the 62 women enrolled, half received mock treatments by research assistants not trained in healing touch while the other half received therapy from experienced practitioners. Women who received the healing touch therapy reported experiencing “significant changes in improved quality of life and proportionately larger reductions in fatigue than those in the control group.”

Nurse and healing touch practitioner Margaret Harle says some people remain skeptical of the benefits of healing touch because the results are difficult to measure.

“We’re dealing with something that is not easily seen or measured,” Harle says. “Most of the research around healing touch has to do with measuring symptoms or feelings. The kind of research done around this is about quality of life.”

Harle says she has seen the results in cancer patients firsthand and believes it is an important complementary treatment to offer. She hopes the practice will become more commonly used, when there is the possibility of educating nurses to use healing touch with patients every day. Long sessions aren’t necessary, she says, just several minutes while tending to the patients would do fine.

“It helps clients connect to their own spirit and the spirit around them, whatever that is,” Harle says. “It helps them feel connected with the meaning of life.”

Energy modalities like healing touch, yoga, Reiki and qigong are one type of complementary medicine being studied to treat side effects of cancer and cancer treatments. M. D. Anderson’s Complementary/Integrative Education Resources website, offers more information about these modalities.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center