Cancer House of Hope Offers a New, Alternative Option for Its Members: Hypnosis

“I don’t do stage hypnosis—I don’t make people cluck like chickens. What I do is help everyday people with everyday problems.”

—Certified Hypnotist Lee Callagher

The first impression you get when you walk into the Cancer House of Hope (CHH) is its comfortable, home-like setting. A white raised ranch in a residential area on Westfield Street in West Springfield, CHH has a kitchen and couches, a giant fish tank, and a backyard water feature and fire pit, as well as an adorable comfort dog—a Shih Tzu-Havanese mix named Abby—who happily greets you, tail wagging.

The homey, non-clinical atmosphere is warm and welcoming—it is this tranquil vibe that those going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment truly appreciate. CHH provides a variety of support services, counseling, wellness programs, recreational offerings, and psychotherapeutic therapies, including art therapy, free of charge.

Program Director Margaret Toomey has always been proud of the fact that these services have been provided onsite, whether it be relaxation classes, certified oncology massage (each massage is tailored based on the treatment and side effects of each individual), yoga, or Reiki treatment—an ancient eastern art that balances and restores the body’s energy levels.

In January of 2020, Toomey expanded CHH offerings with in-person hypnosis sessions, which help cancer patients relax and better cope with treatment and pain.

But three months later, COVID hit, and the country went into lockdown to combat the spread of the virus. “We were just in the beginning stages of getting the hypnosis program off the ground, and then we closed the House to visitors,” said Toomey. Fortunately, CHH was able to provide 90 percent of the rest of its programming virtually during the worst of the COVID outbreak. “We had yoga, cooking demonstrations, and classes via Zoom,” she recalled. But not hypnosis, which went on a bit of hiatus.

As COVID infection numbers went on a downtrend in the late spring of 2021 and Massachusetts began to reopen, the House opened its doors for in-person services again on June 1, 2021. “One of the takeaways I got during COVID is that people appreciate virtual classes, so we still have yoga live and virtually,” said Toomey. One of her goals was to bring back hypnosis to CHH’s menu of services.

CHH Program Director Margaret Toomey

Then, in January of 2022, the highly contagious omicron variant of coronavirus emerged, so CHH programs went virtual again. However, it was during this period that CHH’s hypnosis program was resurrected: certified hypnotist Lee Callagher, who had been leading yoga classes at CHH for five years, approached Toomey and said she was willing to donate her time and offer hypnosis via Zoom to CHH members. “I notified all members in our wellness and therapy programs, and a few stepped forward willing to try it,” said Toomey.

On February 28, 2022, with omicron subsiding and the state easing COVID restrictions, CHH opened to in-person services again. At present, Callagher continues to provide CHH members with hypnosis via Zoom. She pointed out that using Zoom for hypnosis works well because many people feel more relaxed in their own homes—the familiar surroundings allow for better focus, which improves outcomes. “They’re not in somebody’s office,” she said. “So if they have a favorite chair for resting or napping, for example, they’ll associate that chair with relaxing. It’s been proven to work just as well as face-to-face hypnosis.”

Reaching Goals

Callagher had decided to get training and certification in hypnosis after she realized that this technique can have many of the benefits that yoga offers: managing pain and anxiety, and increasing feelings of well-being. Callagher, a member of the National Guild of Hypnotists, said there are many misconceptions about hypnosis—many of them perpetuated by the media—including the myth that you are asleep or unconscious under hypnosis. In fact, hypnosis is a focused state of attention during which the subject is highly relaxed physically while the mind is alert and open to suggestions.

“I don’t do stage hypnosis—I don’t make people cluck like chickens,” she said with a laugh. “What I do is help everyday people with everyday problems.”

Callagher said those under hypnosis are under control the whole session. “Their subconscious is taking in information, and the subconscious is powerful—it can work with them to reach goals.” The subconscious can be used to change habits—that’s why some people see a hypnotist to quit smoking and help with weight loss.

Hypnosis has been compared to daydreaming, or the process of “losing yourself” in a movie or book—you are fully conscious, but you tune out most of the stimuli around you, focusing keenly on the subject at hand. For example, as you get more engrossed in a movie plot, your worries about your job, family, etc. fade away as you concentrate about what is on the screen.

To be sure, the normal stresses of everyday life pale in comparison to the specter of a cancer diagnosis, where fear of the unknown is a major concern. People who have had cancer experience specific psychological and emotional impacts as soon as they are diagnosed, including anxiety, depression, and loss of control. Studies have shown that hypnosis can alleviate these symptoms. “Many of the people I see can’t relax, or have trouble sleeping,” said Callagher. “Some of them have small children and they wonder if they’re going to be around to see them grow up. There is a lot of anxiety, even after their cancer treatment.”

A cancer diagnosis and its subsequent treatment can put people on an emotional rollercoaster, but hypnosis can help make cancer patients and cancer survivors feel more in control of their situation.

Certified Hypnotist Lee Callagher

Callagher’s process with clients is to begin with a phone interview to determine what they want to improve on, or what’s bothering them. One of the CHH members who has used Callagher’s services, breast cancer survivor Joanne Toussaint, had previously taken advantage of CHH’s Reiki and massage sessions. But she still often had trouble sleeping. “I’m open to anything and everything,” said Toussaint. “I’m also a member of the Cancer House of Hope’s Breast Cancer Support Group. So I thought I’d give hypnosis a try.”

During Toussaint’s initial interview, Callagher explained what hypnosis is—and isn’t. “It’s not what you see in the movies,” said Toussaint. “It’s not snapping your fingers and changing a behavior.” Callagher asked Toussaint her about her interests and what she hoped to accomplish. “She asked me what color I like, and I told her it was purple, and during the later hypnosis session, she incorporated this fact,” said Toussaint. “I had told her how much I love the beach—how it relaxes me, so she asked me to visualize using a purple towel at the beach. It’s really personalized.”

Toussaint found that in hypnosis on Zoom the personal aspect of the session isn’t lost in a virtual setting. “I can see her, and she can see me,” she said.

Indeed, in 2018, a group of Italian researchers conducted a study of hypnosis’s effectiveness over an electronic device. In the study, published in the journal Psychology, the researchers performed a series of “cold pressor tests”—test subjects stuck their hand into a container of icy water while their blood pressure, heart rate, and pain tolerance was measured. The study showed that in hypnotic focused analgesia—whether the hypnosis was conducted in the same room or over an electronic device from a different room—the subjects’ perceived pain was equally nullified. The researchers concluded that the hypnotic information itself was more important than the means used to communicate it.

As for the pain associated with cancer itself—or post-surgical pain—other studies have also shown that hypnosis can proved a safe and efficacious supplement to pharmaceutical management of cancer pain. “I don’t use hypnosis to treat acute pain, but for chronic pain it can be very effective,” said Callagher.

When pressed on how she can help a subject help herself to alleviate pain, Callagher offers what she calls a “brief, simplistic” explanation of how hypnosis can control the perception of pain. “When you have chronic pain, that pain signal’s constantly knocking at your door,” she said. “A person can say, ‘OK, you don’t have to be knocking all the time. My messenger’s come to the door, but now I can acknowledge the messenger and send it away for a while.’ You can tell the messenger that if it needs to come back again, it’s welcome to. So it’s kind of like they’re working together now, instead of the messenger constantly coming back and the person getting frustrated, because there is so much emotion tied to it.”

Adjunctive Components of Care

Toomey said that CHH has always strived to provide a wide variety of therapy and wellness programs to try to accommodate everyone’s needs. For example, the House also offers members outdoor walking groups, a knitting group, and therapeutic horseback riding at Whispering Horse in East Longmeadow twice a month. “Hypnosis, relaxation yoga, and Reiki may all bring the same results, but are accomplished in different ways,” she said. “As we all know, one program does not fit all. Hypnosis may be the answer for a member, while another member may find more benefits from Reiki or relaxation. Other members may use yoga in combination with another wellness program and find great relief from stress, pain, anxiety, headaches. It all depends on the individual.”

Toussaint agreed: “All the services go hand-in-hand to increase your overall well-being,” she said. “Hypnosis is a great complement to the other programs. Lee also emails me the audio recordings of the sessions, so I can do this on my own time and get back into a hypnotic state when I want to. I’ve been raving about it to everyone I know. It really works.”