Making safe choices when integrating complementary or alternative therapies into cancer treatment

Written by: Dr Sarah Partridge
Edited by: Karolyn Judge

If you think about complementary or alternative therapies for people with cancer, do you immediately come up with self-hypnosis? Have you considered why some therapies may worsen your condition rather than improve it?


Trying new therapies are a vested interest for patients with cancer. It's true that complementary therapies are already combined with many conventional treatments. These options could be:



Consultant clinical oncologist Dr Sarah Partridge discusses the importance of consulting your medical support team about any alternative treatments you may be considering and the benefits of self-hypnosis as a safe choice in your treatment journey.


Empty brown leather chair and intricate pendant set against a white curtain


If a clinical trial isn't suitable, what other options are available?

Even though enrolling in conventional clinical trials that are designed to improve care standards with statistically-proven methods may be associated with better outcomes, there may not be trials taking place that are relevant to your particular diagnosis. This means that cancer patients often contemplate other options alongside their cancer treatments.        


Patients may use alternative therapies, dietary regimes or supplements and/or cannabinoids without their physicians knowing. These options are regularly rationalised via hard-sales techniques rather than evidence-based studies, and the desperation of clientele fearing the worst are capitalised upon.  


Some of these choices may even tragically contribute to worse outcomes, heightening the toxicity of conventional therapy as well as being expensive.


How can I approach alternative cancer therapies in a safer way?

I strongly advocate an open dialogue about any additional therapy you want to include in your cancer treatment with your oncologist or physician. After an informed discussion, if you still would like to proceed, then you can be assured that additional safety checks can be put into place. Alternatively, recommendations can be made to time doses of alternative medicines or supplements to minimise counterproductive effects.


By doing this, you have greater control, enhancing trust within a two-way therapeutic relationship, and ensures your holistic well-being is safeguarded by your healthcare team.


While your doctor may not recommend the complementary treatment, especially if there is no strong, supportive evidence of benefit, your experience with it may educate them regarding the impact of the integration of your chosen add-on.  You can also seek advice and support through the different cancer charities, such as Macmillan, or the Maggie’s Centres, amongst others.


What are the benefits of self-hypnosis as adjuvant treatment with cancer therapy?

In contrast to methods I've mentioned, self-hypnosis is remarkably safe. Light trance states can still be quickly induced by most individuals, despite being  lighter than those facilitated by a hypnotherapist. Self-control, self-determination and end-point-oriented goal setting are embodied in this intrinsic process, which can improve markedly with practice and repetition.


Even in the face of huge uncertainty surrounding a cancer diagnosis, treatment outcomes and the possibility of long-term functional loss, a simple induction strategy will allow you to relax whilst you integrate therapeutic suggestions,  helping you get the best out of your treatment, and minimise side effects.    


Our immune systems can function at their best through relaxation. The body's healing mechanisms function optimally without the stress-response, which pumps cortisol and adrenaline out of adrenal glands, which causes the heart to race, vasoconstriction,  high blood pressure , and immune suppression.


By focussing on our breathing, slowing it down and allowing better lung expansion and oxygenation, we can start to calm our sympathetic nervous responses, which if untamed, leads to a sensation of panic, inducing the fright or flight response. You will feel better by bring your attention to each breath getting deeper and slower... simply doing that puts you back in control.


Self-hypnosis is a means to induce a peaceful state of mind, and can be  easily learned by listening to simple, beneficial suggestions and drawing your attention to certain parts of your body. We naturally slip in and out of hypnotic states every day, but learning to harness these states, is akin to learning the use of different tools in a tool-box. 


Used regularly, it is incredibly versatile and adaptable and can not only provide a mental 'holiday' from the hectic turmoil of conscious thought processes which can so easily seed negative thoughts, but also improve healing, and resilience.


Can you give an example of how clinical hypnosis has assisted your patients?

I offered clinical hypnosis to the wife of one of my patients who I had got to know well over the course of treating her husband for a brain tumour. Things did not look good for him prognostically, and while he had retrieved a good level of independence following treatment, he was no longer able to work.


They were parents to four boys, the youngest being 10 years old when his father was diagnosed. She had been amazing at remaining positive; continuing to run her company while juggling the family's needs. A truly modern-day superwoman.


During one of her husband's follow-up appointments, she mentioned that she had been getting a few twinges in her chest which were being investigated. On our next meeting, I was horrified to hear that she had been diagnosed with a rare, highly malignant form of lung cancer in two sites around the edge of her chest wall.


Panic stricken, she told me she was 'awash with fear'. She had been told there was only a slight chance that surgery might be feasible and if so, would necessitate removal of one lung followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy,  but even so there would be a glimmer of a chance that she could expect long term survival.


She was tempted to fly over to America to find out if surgery might be better there. It seemed that their young children would be orphans before too long, and outliving her husband looked unlikely.


What support is offered to cancer patients when survival chances are low?

Helping people come to terms with our inevitable mortality is one of the hardest things as an oncologist, particularly when a cancer diagnosis presents the prospect of a greatly foreshortened life.


While we can do so much these days, we cannot promise cures. Often, much of our work is listening, understanding and ensuring we do our best to keep unpleasant symptoms at bay. However, our treatments can involve risk and discomfort all too frequently, despite being undertaken in the hope to prolong life and improve its quality.


When we become powerless to do more, negotiating the difficult conversations about end-of-life care with patients and families who we get to know well and care about, can be one of the hardest parts of our job.  


What was the hypnotherapy session like with your patient?

I must confess, I did not actually know quite what I was going to be able to say that could possibly make things any better when I offered her that first session of hypnotherapy.


However, she gratefully agreed, and we arranged to meet the following day. I jotted down some therapeutic approaches and suggestions that evening, relying on the fact she was clearly a woman who was highly capable, powerful and articulate - yet, full of dread, and incapacitating fear. 


We agreed on the approach I had devised when she arrived the following day. Within deep trance, I used metaphors that gave her new perspectives on her life, reconnected her powerful unconscious self to her conscious, and taught her self-hypnosis.


I also gave her a therapeutic tool box which would see her through any forthcoming surgery and recovery, assisting her to remain in control psychologically. I could see that she felt better immediately after our session. She declared: "That's amazing! My fear has actually gone!".


What happened after the first hypnotherapy meeting?

She had surgery in the UK, and avoided spending a significant amount of time away from her family, and went on to outstrip all of her oncologist's expectations. He had confided to me that he did not expect her to survive the year.


Over the many years that followed, we continued to meet at her husband's infrequent follow ups, as he too had defied the survival statistics. She continually emphasised how helpful self-hypnosis had been throughout her treatment and beyond. She claimed it had given back a sense of control, the ability to remain calm and think clearly, as well as being able to manage her symptoms.


The strength of the human spirit is inspiring. I truly believe that, if one can overcome fear and despair, hope and determination can work wonders. Our immune systems provide our own ‘immunotherapy’. We have designed our audio files with that goal in mind. All it takes is a drop of imagination and the ripple effects within your subconscious might amaze you.



If you’re interested in effective self-hypnosis techniques as part of your cancer treatment or would like to book a clinical hypnosis session with Dr Partridge, visit her Top Doctors profile here.

By Dr Sarah Partridge
Clinical oncology

Dr Sarah Partridge is a renowned consultant clinical oncologist in London. She offers patients personalised and holistic care during their cancer treatment, providing them with an opportunity to engage in hypnotherapy to achieve profound alterations in mood, well-being and symptom control.

Dr Partidge is a leading expert in her field who works closely with surgical and nursing teams. Her areas of expertise consist of thyroid cancer and head and neck cancer, including cancers of the larynx (voice box), tongue, tonsils and other rarer sites. She supervises and creates management plans for patients' individual needs, which can involve curative treatments with radiotherapypostoperative radiotherapy treatmentschemotherapy and immunotherapy.

She graduated from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in 1990, following which she completed five years of postgraduate specialist training in oncology in London, based between Charing Cross, Guy’s and St Thomas’ and Mount Vernon hospitals. She has also completed a diploma with distinction in clinical hypnotherapy. Since 2002, she has practised at Charing Cross Hospital, which is where she developed a service for cancer patients as part of her role as lead for complementary therapy services.

Furthermore, Dr Partridge plays an active role in specialist training support within oncology as well as participating in the education of medical students. She also is on the Council for Hypnosis and Psychosomatic Medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine, promoting wider recognition and education regarding hypnosis.

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