Magic, medicine or placebo effect?
That’s the issue that Kathy Turner, RN, a nurse practitioner in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, wants to investigate. Last year she established Healing Partners, a program that offers the therapy through Women’s Health @ Stanford. She said it is modeled on programs in Hawaii and Colorado and described it as involving a noninvasive form of energy-balancing work that aims to promote deep relaxation. So far Healing Partners has paired more than 30 breast cancer patients, including Palter, with volunteer providers who have been trained in the technique.
Healing Touch is based on the Eastern medicine concept that a person’s body is surrounded by a field of energy, and unblocking the body’s energy flow can help or prevent illness. During a session, the clothed patient lies on a massage table while the practitioner assesses the patient’s energy field by placing her hands a few inches above the body. She then lightly touches or moves her hands above the blocked areas, in an effort to increase energy flow.
No published data exists on whether this therapy offers any relief—and there is no shortage of doctors who are skeptical.
A 1998 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association called into question the existence of energy fields. And David Spiegel, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science and an expert in complementary therapies, said many researchers—himself included—are doubtful of the scientific theory behind this approach. While Spiegel acknowledged it might offer some help, he attributed that to the positive effects of being touched.
“There used to be an old phrase in medicine about the laying on of hands,” said Spiegel. “The first thing you did as a doctor was lay your hands on the patient. You tried to connect with patients physically to determine how you could help them. I think that’s what’s happening here.”
Yet Turner wonders if there is more to it than that, and she points to preliminary data showing significant positive changes among Healing Partners participants. An end-of-program analysis of 26 participants showed that 69 percent experienced reduced depression and anxiety, 71 percent experienced increased energy, and 81 percent experienced an increased quality of life. Some participants have also reported a reduction of side effects from chemotherapy and radiation, such as nausea and pain.
Comments from several participants back up these numbers: Palo Alto psychotherapist Anne Broderick said her sessions made her feel “wonderful and calm.” And Palter credits her sessions for giving her a “light” feeling that she said helped her endure treatment.
Turner believes that the value of Healing Touch may lie in the fact that it offers participants a sense of deep relaxation and human connection, and she would like to give more women the opportunity to try the therapy. She’s now looking for both participants and volunteer providers, who are required to complete two levels of Healing Touch training and attend a weekend training session before being paired with a patient.
With more patients in the program, Turner wants to begin to gather more hard data. She plans to use information from participant questionnaires to design future, randomized studies. And she hopes to someday expand the program, which is supported by gifts from the Avon Foundation and a private donor, to other kinds of patients. “Anyone with cancer deserves this,” she said.