Guided Imagery and Meditation Blog | Health Journeys

You are here: Home Update Update from Belleruth Cancer Imagery Up-Regulates Immune Function After All

Cancer Imagery Up-Regulates Immune Function After All

26 Jun

Hello again.

I’ve been looking at the research and pondering how far we’ve come from those early days when we were first learning about guided imagery as a possible, bona fide addition to the cancer treatment toolkit.  

Back in the 80’s when guided imagery was first getting promoted by Bernie Siegel, Stephanie & Carl Simonton, Jeanne Achterberg and Frank Lawlis, there was a lot of excitement about its potential.  Early pilot studies showed a lot of promise (early studies often do – perhaps because of the excitement the investigators feel about their intervention), and there was a lot of talk about how ‘visualization’ could wipe out cancer cells.  People were encouraged to imagine Pac-Men, a popular video game at the time, eating up cancer cells, before, during and after chemotherapy.

In those days, the imagery was strictly visual – the other senses were not called into play – and that made it hard for the half of the population that’s not especially well wired for visual memory or fantasy.  We’ve since learned that all the senses need to be brought to bear, and that perhaps the most potent and impactful sense is the kinesthetic one – imagining the feel of things inside the body. We also figured out that for most people, when the imagery has a strong emotional flavor to it, it gets potentiated to a greater extent and has more impact.

The research at that time showed that the proponents of visualization were over-promising.  These early visualizations helped cancer patients with motivation, coping, anxiety and the side effects of chemotherapy and other medical procedures  but didn’t make a dent on the progress of the cancer itself.  Investigators reluctantly backed off from their ambitious early claims and stuck with side-effects and coping benefits.

But fast forward to just a few years ago and you’ll find more sophisticated, powerful imagery and randomized, controlled clinical trials that are a lot more nuanced and scientific.  Blood assays have in fact been revealing the immuno-modulatory effects of relaxation training and guided imagery. In 2009, Eremin, Walker et al, demonstrated significant differences for breast cancer patients in the number of CD25+ (activated T cells), CD56+ (LAK cells) and the number of CD3+ (mature) T cells.

Additionally, those who rated their imagery highly had significantly altered their   NK, LAK cell activity and IL1beta levels. Also, their relaxation scores correlated with their number of CD4+ (T helper) cells, the CD4+:8+ (helper:cytotoxic) ratio, and IL1beta levels. Bottom line: their bodies’ cellular defenses responded significantly during and after treatment for cancer, making guided imagery a valuable adjuvant therapy.

Similar findings were reported in 2008 by Lengacher, Bennett et al and in meta-analyses and reviews by Trakhtenberg and by Gruzelier.

In other words, we’ve come full circle.  Those early claims are starting to look a lot more justified, although more work needs to be done to consistently establish this, and then to break down what it is about the imagery that potentiates these effects – were they there all along, and we just weren’t doing fancy enough blood tests to show it?  Or has the imagery itself gotten better, and if so, in what ways?

So stay tuned.  We’re on the cusp of finding out a lot of useful things in this here decade.

Take care and be well,

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award