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Table of Contents > Articles > Using Guided Imagery to Reconnect With ...
Using Guided Imagery to Reconnect With the Body and Cope with Cancer Pain

Each year more than 185,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. In the United States the prevailing myth is that breast cancer is a "white woman's disease." The reality is that it affects all women of all races and even a tiny number of men. Breast cancer ranks second after lung cancer as the leading cause of death by cancer among women between 40 and 55 years old. While cutting edge research in nutrition, surgical procedures, prevention techniques, and drug therapies have given breast cancer patients a fighting chance in overcoming the disease, nevertheless, a growing number of people have begun to search for a more holistic, integrative approach to care. Guided imagery (GI) is one of a growing number of therapeutic techniques used by breast cancer patients as a complement to their conventional medical care.

Monthly breast self examination and annual gynecological examinations provide the most effective strategy for preventing breast cancer. However, if you are diagnosed with cancer, a physician may prescribe a number of drug therapies including radiation therapy (use of high energy rays to kill cancer); chemotherapy (use of drugs to kill cancer cells); hormonal therapy, which keeps cancer cells from getting the hormones needed to grow; antitumor antibiotics, antiestrogens such as tamoxifen, which blocks the action of estrogen on breast tissue, monoclonal antibodies to block the protein receptor and high-dose progestogens (steroid hormones). Herbs such as ginger root; dietary strategies such as eating only organic foods, following a high fiber diet, and taking certain vitamin supplements may help minimize the nausea and other side effects of conventional medical care.

What conventional medicine cannot do, apparently, is adequately address the needs of those with advanced disease, persistent cancer pain, or the psychological burden of the disease. Approximately 65% of breast cancer patients experience pain during the course of their disease, pain that becomes a constant reminder of the illness and the destruction of their body image. This situation has become a more pressing problem today than a generation ago because current treatments are keeping people alive long enough to enter the chronic, terminal phase of their illness, thereby extending the duration and severity of their suffering. If left untreated, pain can trigger psychiatric symptoms, such as depression, mood disturbance and anxiety, which in turn aggravate the pain. Pain has also been linked to decreased survival in advanced cancer patients.

Guided imagery, as a form of healing, has long been utilized in the context of illness and healing across cultural boundaries. It is recognized by many as a means of establishing some sense of control over their lives and bodies and as a way to attach meaning to the disease and its treatment. Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that relieves cancer-related anxiety and pain by using mental images produced by memory or imagination. So how does it actually work? Typically, the clinician will have the patient lie or sit in a comfortable position in a quiet room, close their eyes, and settle their thoughts and breathing. The patient is then "guided" by a skilled therapist to access this state of heightened, relaxed, inner awareness. The process can also be facilitated by someone reading a script, or by using specially prepared audiotapes.

For one woman undergoing chemotherapy, guided imagery helped her to imagine that the IV (intravenous) that the nurses were putting in her arm contained lots of little PAC Men that would eat up all the poisons in her body. When things got bad, she writes: "I just thought it's all those little PAC Men at work." Another woman imagined that she was stepping on cancer each time her foot hit the pavement. She even imagined she went in with a vacuum cleaner and killed off the cancer cells.

Guided imagery is clearly not a cure for breast cancer. But it can help patients begin to feel as if they have some sense of control over the progression of the disease in a situation that feels out of control. It also helps to relieve pain. When used with conventional medical treatment, guided imagery can provide a noninvasive, inexpensive, and necessary means of repairing this ruptured relationship between the self, the body, and the woman's social world. By discussing alternative or complementary medical therapies such as guided imagery with their physicians, cancer patients can ensure an integrated treatment strategy that addresses the whole person.

The potential cost-effectiveness and lack of side effects associated with mind-body therapies such as guided imagery make continued research an important priority for the medical community. Recently, the National Institutes for Health received $10 million to conduct research in the behavioral sciences and establish pilot mind-body medical centers (NIH 2000).


Moore R, Spiegel D. Uses of Guided Imagery for Pain Control by African-American and White Women with Metastatic Breast Cancer. Integrative Medicine Consult. 1999; 2(2/3): 115-126.

Review Date: November 2000
Reviewed By: Integrative Medicine editorial

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

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