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September 16, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, September 16, 2005

The Healing Touch The Healing Touch (September 16, 2005)

Breast cancer patients find 'energy-balancing' therapy can alleviate chemo's harsh side effects

By Diana Reynolds Roome

Every week for the past six months, Collette Tillman has experienced an hour of deep relaxation, sometimes right after her daily radiation treatment at El Camino Hospital.

"It's a great part of getting well," said Tillman, who was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in December. "It was so relaxing that my mind would float out and I wouldn't think of anything. I'd come away in a trance."

Tillman was the first person to receive Healing Touch, an "energy-balancing" therapy provided through a new program that pairs practitioners and breast cancer patients for six months of weekly treatments. Barbara Kulle, who offers a variety of healing therapies including medical hypnotherapy and Reiki at her Mountain View office, volunteered her skills to work with Tillman as part of Healing Partners, a new program from Women's Health at Stanford, which is designed to alleviate the often harsh side effects of cancer treatments.

"Healing does not always imply curing. Curing is the absence of a disease. Healing is reaching the highest possible level of wholeness and wellness for an individual, in terms of body, mind and spirit," said Kathy Turner, a nurse who initiated and now directs Healing Partners. "Healing Touch is a simple, beautiful intervention that can be used to treat and help with symptoms and stress around all kinds of acute and chronic illnesses."

Practitioners have no doubt that this complementary therapy can have a positive effect on respiration, heart rate, blood pressure and the endocrine system.

"I know my clients are reaching a deeper state of relaxation. They breathe more deeply and rhythmically, their muscles begin to relax, their face softens," said Kulle, who takes clients through a careful process of balancing the body's "energy fields." (These correspond to the major endocrine glands, also known as chakras in the ancient Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine.) "It's different for each person. But it allows them to step back and focus on the moment, allowing the body to access its own ability to heal."

Kulle has the client lie flat on a bed in her office, fully clothed (apart from shoes) and covered by a special quilt made for and by people with breast cancer. She asks what the patient has been experiencing, in terms of pain, discomfort, or other problems whether physical or emotional, such as unusual irritability, fatigue or anxiety. She then assesses the energy field by moving her hands above the body, noticing areas that feel blocked or congested. After that she lays her hands on feet, knees, hips, upper chest and head, afterwards using specific techniques for symptoms that she finds. The movement is not invasive (there is no muscle manipulation as in a massage), but slow, contemplative and very gentle.

"There are many techniques in Healing Touch," said Kulle, who went through a five-stage training once available only to qualified nurses to gain certification. "We feel what energy fields are open or blocked."

Many clients close their eyes throughout and receive the practice entirely by feeling the sometimes barely perceptible movements of the practitioner. Others may be more curious.

"Sometimes I have one eye open," said Patty Hurley, who attends Healing Touch sessions with practitioner Beth Blach at Grant Road YMCA, where the massage room has been made available for the program's participants. "Beth is moving energy around -- it's a full-body workout for her."

"I can feel warmth, tingling, movement," said Blach. "The feedback you get is intuitive, sensate. You become a conduit for the energy. The body has its own intelligence, and it pulls what it needs." She is quick to point out that this may seems a little nebulous, but people who start out skeptical often say, "I'm not sure what you did, but you can do that again."

"Once they experience it, they speak differently," she adds.

For Hurley, the effects are more about awareness than any immediate physical effects. "You bring yourself back into yourself and get centered. Once you get the diagnosis [of breast cancer] your whole focus changes and you really get in the moment. You want to have positive thoughts. Healing Touch is just what you want when going through stressful experiences."

So far, the program has paired 25 trained and certified practitioners with patients at all stages of breast cancer, from just-diagnosed to years post-treatment. Initially the training was only open to qualified nurses, but today it includes massage therapists, those trained in energy techniques such as Reiki, Qui Gong or acupuncture, or anyone who is interested. It is quite rigorous and includes two days' teaching from nurses.

Gentle human touch, or the laying on of hands, has been known throughout history for its healing effects. Eastern medicine has long accepted the concept of energy fields and the medical practitioner's role in unblocking energy flow to prevent or cure illness.

Western science accepts the notion of energy fields as part of quantum physics, and many doctors, including those at Stanford's Center for Integrative Medicine, are supportive of such modalities. But though preliminary research studies have shown quality of life improvements as a result of Healing Touch, little has been done to demonstrate its physical effects. Each participant in Healing Partners is asked to fill out questionnaires measuring physical symptoms, mood and quality of life before, during and after treatment.

"We will also use this data to identify specific areas of breast cancer treatment and side effects that we can focus on in designing future randomized, controlled research studies," said Turner.

A recent grant to Healing Partners from the Avon Foundation is likely to make such research a reality in the fairly near future.

For example, many women who have mastectomies or removal of lymph nodes develop lymphedema, an uncomfortable swelling of the arm and hand on the affected side. This can be difficult to treat with conventional medicine, but Healing Touch has appeared to reduce the swelling in some cases. Turner would like to design a study to look at the phenomenon.

"I have no problems at all with my arm or my breast now," said Tillman, whose six-month checkup in August showed her to be free of cancer. "My doctor was so proud of me."

Nobody can say exactly how much Healing Touch helped. But as Hurley put it, "It was a great opportunity for me to know I'd have an hour all for myself. It could be nothing but good."

For more information on Stanford University Medical Center's Healing Partners, call (650) 736-1802 or visit Barbara Kulle can be reached at (650) 949-3362.

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