For cancer patients, an escape from stress

Fox Chase Cancer Center offers yoga and Reiki to patients fighting cancer.

As a Reiki master, Darrin Richman often notices a change in his cancer patients after completing their first 30-minute session.

“I had one gentleman who was a prostate cancer patient,” said Richman, a development pharmacist and Reiki Master at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “He was 53, but told me he felt like he was 90. Because of therapy, all of his joints were hurting. It was aggravating to walk, but after the first 30-minute session with me, he goes, ‘I don’t understand, I have no pain.’”

As the session begins, the stress and anxiety that often consumes these patients slowly disappears as the atmosphere overflows with peace and relaxation. Many leave refreshed with a newfound peace, calmness and increased resilience. Even pain caused by treatment is sometimes diminished.

“I even had one elderly woman who was 80 and a lung cancer patient,” Richman said. “After the session she said, ‘I felt like I was two feet off the table floating, and I was skinny.’”

Integrative care, which can include the practice of Reiki, can provide cancer patients with the resolve to cope with their illness. Accompanied by traditional medicine, integrative care provides a holistic approach that seeks to aid in healing the mind, body, and spirit of those dealing with the daily obstacles of a cancer diagnosis.

Fox Chase has implemented an optional, free-of-cost Integrative Care Program. The program, which officially began in 2012, offers complimentary yoga and Reiki sessions to aid the physical and emotional needs of cancer patients and their caregivers.

“Integrative care is complementary medicine, which is added into traditional medicine,” said Carol Cherry, a gynecologic nurse navigator who currently serves as chair of the Integrative Care Initiative. “For instance, if someone wanted to do meditation or yoga for stress reduction, they would not do it in place of traditional cancer treatment.  It would only complement it.”

Cherry had firsthand experience during and after her battle with cancer, when she found yoga as a therapy for relaxation. She also participated in acupuncture while in remission to eliminate joint pain, which was a side effect of a medication that reduces the chances of breast cancer returning.

“I think the first thought for many of us was personal,” Cherry said. “I had breast cancer seven years ago and I found that yoga helped me tremendously with relaxation, with focus and with dealing with stress. The acupuncture also worked amazing for me and made the joint pain go away. I’m just one of a group of people. Some of them had similar experiences where they tried something like yoga or Reiki.”

Many integrative care programs promote relaxation in a stress-free environment. Most are familiar with yoga, which incorporates precise positioning of the body, meditation, and breathing exercises. Studies show yoga can also “improve quality of life, reduce stress, and help relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia,” according to the National Institute of Health.

The yoga component of the Integrative Care Program offers patients a low-impact practice which seeks to adapt to the personal needs of individual patients.

“A large part of it is reducing anxiety,” said Michelle Stortz, who serves as the program’s yoga instructor. “Yoga helps them reduce their anxiety. It’s teaching them about their body on many different levels. Because it’s adaptive I’m able to help them move their bodies safely in ways that they haven’t moved in quite a while.”

She received her Certification in Yoga for Cancer and Chronic Illness after experiencing the effect yoga has on those battling cancer.

“I lost my husband to cancer,” Stortz said. “Prior to that we had a yoga practice together and I saw how much it helped him. So when he passed, I looked into special training.”

Stortz specializes in an adaptive form of yoga for cancer patients, which aids the physical barriers patients often deal with during and after treatment.

 “We adapt to different patients’ needs and abilities,” Stortz said. “If they are dealing with a lot of fatigue, they’re going to stay in the chair a lot. If they are post-treatment and they’re getting stronger, then we’ll do more poses out of the chair. If they are dealing with a lot of stress then we’re going to do a lot more breathing and meditation.”

Reiki, a form of energy healing, is also offered. Reiki loosely translates from Japanese to “universal life force.” It promotes the idea that there is a universal energy that can balance out negative energy within people that may contribute to physical or mental illness.

“There is a universal Chi, or energy, around us,” Richman said. “What a Reiki practitioner is taught and attuned to do is take in this universal Chi flow through their own body, ultimately through their hands, to a person they are sharing Reiki with.”

“What that does is create a balance,” Richman added. “You can imagine if your body’s out of balance, then it’s harder for it to function. If we do nothing more than create a balance, that allows the body to perform the functions it needs.”

There is a lack of high-quality research on Reiki as an effective complementary health approach, according to the NIH. However, it is also believed to prevent symptoms of illness from returning if the root issue is dealt with.

Although the Integrated Care Program is a separate and optional component of therapy which patients can enroll in, the Stress Management program is mandatory for patients who must be seen by a psychiatrist and psychologist at Fox Chase. This program includes traditional medical practices and offers psychotherapy, counseling, relaxation and medication management.

Kayla Oatneal can be reached at

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