Reiki, a therapy in which hands are placed lightly on the body or just above it, is increasingly being used to reduce cancer-related fatigue, anxiety, nausea and pain. Several studies suggest a benefit to patients, but scientists say more large, rigorous studies are needed.
Cancer patients—due to the disease and to side effects of chemotherapy—often suffer from severe mental and physical fatigue, doctors say. Anxiety, nausea and pain are also common. In recent years, many cancer centers have been offering Reiki, a form of healing which originated in Japan in the early 1900s, according to scientific literature. In a session of Reiki, hands are placed lightly on the body. Each spot is treated for three minutes or longer and sometimes therapists place their hands just above the body without touching, says Donah Drewett, a Fairlee, Vt.-based Reiki therapist who works at Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon, N.H.
Extra care is needed with cancer patients. Therapists must avoid sensitive areas on the body such as ports used to administer medications, doctors and therapists say. The gentleness of Reiki is appealing to cancer patients, many of whom are too ill to tolerate a deep-tissue massage, doctors say.
Reiki is often described as a treatment that helps life energy to flow in a patient—an explanation not generally accepted by scientists. Barrie Cassileth, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, calls the energy theory "absurd" but says light-touch therapy can have a "great relaxing effect" on cancer patients "who are constantly poked, prodded and given needles."
Adds Deborah Steele, manager of patient and family support services at Norris Cotton: "How it works is a mystery, but we see anecdotally the amount of delight" it brings patients.
Some scientists think the benefits may be as simple as the warmth of human touch and the feeling that someone is caring for you. "We do have a reciprocal effect between the mind and the body. if you relax one, you relax the other," Dr. Cassileth says.