Complementary medicine has taken some big steps in America’s biggest state.
A program of guided imagery for those who have undergone cancer treatments will be utilized at Alaska Regional Hospital – and the State of Alaska’s insurance carrier, Wells Fargo Alaska Care, will pay for state employees and retirees to go through it.
The Commissioner of Administration for Alaska, Annette Kreitzer, has also asked Lyn Freeman, the Saybrook alumna who created and runs the guided imagery program, to develop similar mind-body based programs for state employees and retirees with hypertension, diabetes, and stress.
Much to Freeman’s surprise it’s being most embraced by oncologists, who have reputations as the most by-the-book, no nonsense doctors there are.
“I’d been expecting resistance,” says Freeman. “But in fact most oncologists I talked to said ‘it’s about time.’”
Part of the reason they were so amenable is that Freeman, who received her PhD from Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, already had successful results from trials funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute; that is to say, she’d done her due diligence. But more than that: her treatment – unconventional as it might seem to western medicine – is filling a niche. The oncologists need what it has to offer.
“My program was the first of its kind to be funded that specifically targeted the late and long-term effects of cancer treatment,” she says. In fact it was only recently that the Institute of Health acknowledged that cancer treatments can cause “chemo-brain,” or cognitive memory losses. Until just recently many of the side-effects of cancer treatments were attributed to “stress,” end of story.
As a result, Freeman recalls, “many doctors said their patients, after treatment, were always exhausted, were experiencing cognition and memory issues, and were asking ‘now what?’ and the doctors didn’t have an answer, besides patting them on the head and sending them on their way. They were waiting for a program like this.”
The program itself, currently funded by the NIH and the National Cancer Institute for a second round of studies, teaches participants to use guided imagery in a way targeted to stimulate brain plasticity – the brain’s ability to change itself – to address the symptoms and side-effects that come with cancer treatments.
“Imagery, simply, is working with your own consciousness and with all of the senses, even movement and balance, to make your lived experience what you want it to be,” says Freeman. “And when you truly awaken to all of your senses with a targeted goal in mind, it modifies your biochemistry, your physiology, your hormone levels, your neural firing … it can have some pretty strong effects.”
Freeman, whose second round of NIH funding was approved as her own husband was diagnosed with cancer, has seen the impact cancer treatments can have in both a personal and professional capacity.
“Cancer has a way of numbing our sense of being alive. People who go through it feel stuck. What this does in many ways is help people get ‘unstuck,’ and open up their ability to move forward,” she says. “Almost everyone who’s working with the techniques pretty quickly report that their memory is improving, that their ability to deal with everyday stress and anxiety is improving, that their ability to focus and address the future is enlivened by the program.”
Right now Freeman is still collecting results from her second NIH trials, but she’s not standing still: she’s working with Alaska Regional Hospital as it implements the program, and is developing guided imagery programs for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“The feedback from people in the study and the oncologists that I’ve worked with has been extremely positive – so I may very well write additional grants,” she says.