A New Ask BR: What's the Latest Intel on the Effectiveness of Guided Imagery for Fighting Cancer?

Belleruth got this great question from a man studying up on his options for dealing effectively with stage 4 colon cancer, should his chemotherapy stop working.

We thought this was a great opportunity to offer this Q & A as an update to everyone, and to share some general info about integrative strategies and treatments in oncology (or CAM, as it used to be called – Complementary & Alternative Medicine).  So, Alan graciously gave us permission to use his question. (As is our policy, that’s not his real name).  So read on, Dear Reader!


The Question:

Dear Mrs. Naparstek :

I recently read your well researched article regarding Guided Imagery and Cancer, published in Huffington Post in 2011.

Here is my background:

I am an 86-year-old cancer patient. During the last 18 months I have been receiving immunotherapy infusion with Keytruda, developed by Merck for a colon cancer that was initially removed, along with 12 lymph nodes, but 3 months after the initial surgery it had spread into my mesenteric area.

The treatment has been effective so far in reducing the size of the tumor. However, the literature regarding this immunotherapy indicates that the treatment may stop working at any time.  

My oncologist indicated that in such case the tumor must be removed by surgery.  I was advised that considering my age and the placement of the tumor, it may be a very, very risky undertaking, with a higher than usual mortality rate.

I’ve been contemplating considering other adjunctive cancer therapies, including Guided Imagery. By the way, I am a firm believer in the mind-body connection .

Please advise if, since your published article in 2011, any more research has been conducted regarding the effects of Guided Imagery, or any other mind-body therapies, for reinforcing the body’s immune system to better fight cancer? 

Please accept my sincere appreciation for your cooperation and response.


Best Regards,

Alan K.

Dear Mr. K.,

Thanks for your crystal-clear explanation of the issues you are facing, and your well-informed questions about your situation.  

First off, I’m sorry you have to deal with all this.

Second, I admire your plucky investigative spirit and the way you’re going about figuring out your odds and options.

And third, I’m happy to answer, because it gives me a good excuse to take a fresh look at the whole field of Integrative Oncology and how it’s grown since 2011. I’ll probably make a blog topic out of this question, with your permission.

The short answer to your question about subsequent research testing the efficacy of guided imagery for cancer:  it seems that most of the recent studies are about testing the power of guided imagery for reducing symptoms and side effects, as opposed to fighting the cancer per se. There are studies of guided imagery’s impact on fatigue, nausea and vomiting in chemo patients, or side effects from radiation and other treatments, or for alleviating depression, anxiety, or helping with sleep. Bottom line on all of that: guided imagery performs well in making life easier for people with cancer. But that’s not what you’re asking.

More to your point, I also found a couple promising studies showing how guided imagery increased the cytotoxicity of natural killer cells as they attacked tumors in breast cancer patients - a smallish sample, but very strong outcomes.  These are not especially recent – they just hadn’t been entered into the data bases at the time I wrote that Huffpo piece.

Here’s the citation for an article you might like, if you’re inclined to read up on more via Pub Med.

Lengacher CA, Bennett MP, Gonzalez L, Gilvary D, Cox CE, Cantor A, Jacobsen PB, Yang C, Djeu J. Immune responses to guided imagery during breast cancer treatment. Biol Res Nurs. 2008 Jan;9(3):205-14. doi: 10.1177/1099800407309374. PMID: 18077773.

To answer your question about other adjuvant integrative therapies for cancer – lots of advances there. The emerging field of Integrative Oncology offers support for cancer patients in these general areas: 

  • Mind-body methods, such as guided imagery, meditation, mindfulness, biofeedback, relaxation, hypnosis, yoga, music therapy
  • Nutritional practices, such as vitamins, herbal supplements, medicinal mushrooms, food-as-medicine eating plans
  • Body-based practices, such as massotherapy, reflexology, acupuncture, chiropractic interventions
  • Energy medicine, such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Healing Touch, Tai Chi, Qigong.

As you can see, there are a lot of options, and a lot of methods you could try. You could in fact get overwhelmed by so many choices. Some, like guided imagery, are easy enough to check out, and we have plenty of it for cancer, by many experts, but I suggest you’d optimize your time better by getting some organized guidance from an integrative oncologist in your area.

And, as luck would have it, I see from your area code that you might live near San Francisco. If so, UCSF has a whole Osher Integrative Medicine department, (and – here’s a fun fact! – has its own customized, streaming page of guided imagery that we built for them).

And luckier yet, one of my all-time favorite oncologists, Donald Abrams, a brilliant, experienced, wise, compassionate, knowledgeable doctor, practices there. I would suggest you make an appointment to consult with him.

And if you do, tell him Belleruth, his diehard fan, sent you!

I hope this is helpful. 


P.S. I’d also consider getting a second opinion about having that surgery.


Best wishes,



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