Emotional and physical stress can be a heavy burden for a person with cancer. The diagnosis and treatment of cancer can make some patients feel as though they have lost control of their lives. Some patients require medications to help them deal with stress and anxiety. Others find that attending support group sessions or meeting with a professional therapist helps them cope. Some patients use an approach called biofeedback, which requires active participation and helps some patients feel they can gain some control back in their lives.
Biofeedback manipulates the body's physiologic responses that are normally controlled by the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system regulates many internal organs and muscles in the body, largely unconsciously. That is, it works without us having to think about it. A biofeedback therapist can teach a patient how to think about and control many of the body's involuntary functions. Some patients learn to control their heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and emotions.
The therapist will place monitoring electrodes on the body or scalp. The electrodes will then be connected to a computer or polygraph. This will put out (make?) a noise or signal indicating the intensity or level of the process to be controlled. The patient is then instructed to concentrate on trying to influence the signal. Specific mental exercises will be performed under the direction of the therapist. The patient will visualize certain images that affect the mood. The patient can eventually learn which mental exercises can change the signals. After a number of sessions (typically 8-10), the patient may be able to affect certain autonomic processes.
There are also biofeedback devices that patients can use at home. Talk with your healthcare team about whether biofeedback would be helpful for you, and the type that would be best for you.
Biofeedback can be useful in a wide variety of conditions. It is not used to cure cancer. The greatest benefit of biofeedback for the cancer patient is relaxation and reduction of stress. This can undoubtedly improve the quality of life for those who are successful. It allows the cancer patient to take an active role in their treatment. Biofeedback is noninvasive, inexpensive, and safe.
Dana L Frank, BS, Lamees Khorshid, PsyD, Jerome F Kiffer, MA, Christine S Moravec, PhD, and Michael G McKee, PhD. Biofeedback in medicine: who, when, why and how? Mental Heatlh Family Medicine. 2010. June; 7(2):85-91.