Visualisation and cancer

Visualisation is a relaxation technique and is also called guided imagery. It uses the power of your imagination to help you relax or relieve symptoms. Other relaxation techniques include breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. 

Summary

  • Visualisation and relaxation techniques can help to relieve stress.
  • It might help you cope with some of the symptoms caused by cancer or cancer treatments.
  • It can lift your mood which might help you to feel more balanced.

What is involved?

A trained therapist can help you learn any of these techniques. You can practice them without a therapist, using a music file, CD or app. You can buy these online, at some book shops or from some cancer support groups or centres. Ask your nurse if they can recommend any or you could contact one of the complementary therapy organisations.

Visualisation 

You create images in your mind that can help you to relax, feel less anxious, sleep better, and reduce pain. You use all of your senses – sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. For example, you may want to think of a place or activity that made you happy in the past. 

While you are learning the technique, your therapist talks you through the sort of images that it may be helpful to picture. They may ask you to imagine a peaceful place where you’d like to be. Or they might teach you to imagine yourself feeling well and strong.

A therapist may be able to teach you the best visualisation techniques for the times when you feel most stressed. They can show you short visualisation exercises or deeper relaxation techniques.

If you have to stay in bed or can't leave your home, imagery or visualisation techniques may help. You may feel less closed in if you have been indoors for a long time.

Breathing exercises

This is when you focus on your breathing and take long, slow deep breaths to help you relax. 

Progressive muscle relaxation 

During progressive muscle relaxation you focus on tensing and relaxing the muscles in your body, one muscle group at a time. You do this until your whole body is relaxed. 

Possible side effects

These relaxation techniques are generally safe, especially under the guidance of a trained health professional.

It is best to use them alongside your conventional cancer treatment.

There are no reports of side effects. 

Research into visualisation and relaxation techniques

Research has looked into visualisation to help control symptoms and treatment side effects in people with cancer. It is difficult to do this type of research and the results are sometimes not clear. We need more research to see how visualisation and other relaxation techniques can help people with cancer.

Relaxation techniques and chemotherapy 

A study in 2016 looked at guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation. They wanted to know if it could help reduce tiredness, pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety and depression. The people who took part were having chemotherapy for breast and prostate cancer.

They found that symptoms improved in the people who did the relaxation techniques. The study did have limitations and more research is needed. But the researchers suggest that these relaxation techniques could be helpful for people having cancer treatment.

Visualisation to improve quality of life and mood 

In 2010 the PERI study reported its results. It looked at visualisation and guided imagery for patients with bowel cancer. The study included 151 patients and found that relaxation and guided imagery did not significantly change people’s mood or quality of life.

An earlier review of 6 studies in 2005 suggested that guided imagery may be helpful in managing stress, anxiety, and depression for people with cancer. Further research in this area is needed.  

Relaxation techniques and breast cancer surgery 

A small study in 2018 looked at visualisation, breathing techniques, meditation, and muscle relaxation. They developed a tool kit to see if these techniques could reduce anxiety before and after breast cancer surgery. The study was small (only 100 women) and had several challenges and limitations.

They concluded that some of the women benefited from the relaxation techniques. It helped with their emotional well being and resilience to cancer treatment. We need more studies and on a larger scale.

What it costs

Many health care organisations or cancer support groups provide visualisation sessions led by a health professional for free.

Some organisations may make a small charge or ask for a donation.

Finding a visualisation therapist

Anyone can call themselves a visualisation therapist, so be careful about paying a therapist without checking what training they’ve had.

There are specific courses for training people to become experts in relaxation, visualisation and guided imagery techniques. Some nurses and doctors have training in this area. And psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists all have training in the use of relaxation and visualisation techniques.

  • Effectiveness of Complementary Therapies in Cancer Patients: A Systematic Review
    M. Guerra-Martín and others
    Review International Journal of Environmental Health and Public Research, 2021. Volume 18, Issue 3.

  • Guided Imagery And Progressive Muscle Relaxation as a Cluster of Symptoms Management Intervention in Patients Receiving Chemotherapy: A Randomized Control Trial. 
    A. Charalambous and others 
    PLOS ONE, 2016. Volume 11, Issue 6, Pages 1-18

  • Effectiveness of a Self-Care Toolkit for Surgical Breast Cancer Patients in a Military Treatment Facility
    E. Stoerkel and others  
    Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2018; Volume 24, Pages 916–925

  • A systematic review of guided imagery as an adjuvant cancer therapy
    L Rolfe and others
    Psycho-Oncology, 2005, Volume 14, Issue 8.

  • Complementary medicine in palliative care and cancer symptom management.
    PJ Mansky and DB Wallerstedt
    Cancer Journal, 2006, Volume 12, Issue 5.

  • Using relaxation and guided imagery to address pain, fatigue and sleep disturbances: A pilot study.
    AK Nooner and others
    Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, Oct 2016, Volume 20, No 5

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

Last reviewed: 
03 May 2022
Next review due: 
03 May 2025