Healing Touch for cancer (thanks, NCCAM!)

I was looking at recent grants made by NCCAM, and found a project that just started last year: R15AT003591, “Use of Energy Biofield Therapy for the Treatment of Cancer and GVHD”, from the Univ. of Nevada-Reno, led by Alice Running in their nursing school, and co-directed by Lisbeth Welniak of UC Davis. It’s a 3-year award, and the first year was for $210,688, so I’m estimating the total cost at roughly $630,000. That's a nice chunk of change. But what the heck is "energy biofield therapy"?

Well, NCCAM supports a variety of pseudoscientific practices in the “energy therapy” category, including this study. Running and Welniak plan to look specifically at two methods, Reiki and “Healing Touch”, to see if they can (1) cure cancer and (2) reduce the likelihood of immune rejection (graft versus host disease, or GVHD) of transplated tissues or cells. Really? Remarkable.

First, a very quick look at the two “therapies” proposed by Running and Welniak. Healing Touch is another name for “Therapeutic Touch,” a technique that is little more than magical thinking, but that is very popular (unfortunately) among many nurses and nurse-training programs (including, obviously, the PI of this study, Alice Running). Basically, the claim is that a Healing Touch practitioner (let’s call this person a “healer”) can wave her hands over the patient, manipulate the patient’s “energy field” (an invisible field, undetectable by any known technology), and heal all sorts of illnesses, relieve pain, etc. During a session, the healer doesn’t even touch the patient.

This is all complete nonsense, of course. Therapeutic Touch (and Healing Touch) were most famously debunked in a 1998 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Rosa L, Rosa E, Sarner L, Barrett S. A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch. JAMA 279:1005-1010, 1998), using an experiment designed by Emily Rosa, a 4th-grade student at the time. The results have been summarized in many places:
“Emily was able to recruit 21 experienced TT practitioners for her experiment. The TTP's were allowed to "feel" Emily's hands prior to the test, and choose which one they felt the strongest energy radiating from. With the TTP seated behind the screen, Emily then placed her hand over one of the TTP's hands. After 20 trials, these experienced TTP's, some of whom had even published articles on TT, could only sense Emily's hand correctly 44% of the time. By chance alone, they should have guessed correctly 50% of the time. Clearly, except in their own mind, they were not sensing an energy field.”
If TT was debunked 10+ years ago, why is this obvious pseudoscience still being funded by NCCAM? The leaders of this new study claim (with no evidence) that “The mental ability of a being, whether conscious or not, to influence physical parameters especially those linked to stress and inflammatory pathways has become more evident in recent years.” Ah, I see. It's "evident" to someone - presumably Running and Welniak.

Unfortunately, there is big money behind Healing Touch. Programs such as this one - http://www.healingtouchprogram.com - have sold certification classes to over 100,000 nurses (so they claim), making this a multi-million dollar industry with many “experts” who aren’t likely to admit that they are frauds (or that they’ve been made to look like fools). This is despite the fact that websites promoting Healing Touch proudly admit that "many of the techniques used in energy therapies come from practices in shamanistic and Asian traditions with thousands of years of use." That's right, these techniques were used by shamans. Sounds trustworthy to me.

Reiki, by the way, is pretty much the same thing, only with different mumbo-jumbo surrounding it. The Reiki “therapist is supposed to direct their energy into the client to promote the body's self healing” and some Reiki instructors even claim that Reiki can heal genetic disorders.

Oh, and I should mention: this NCCAM study will look at mice. That’s right, they will use Healing Touch to try to cure cancer in mice. As they describe it: “we will determine the limits of Healing Touch to reduce tumor growth and symptoms of graft vs. Host disease in murine models.”

What seems to be going on is that Running believes in this nonsense, and she has recruited Welniak – a scientist at another institution who has published legitimate work on GVHD in mice, and doesn’t seem to have published anything relating to pseudoscience before – to provide cancerous mice for her study. The two of them submitted a proposal to NCCAM, and now they have NIH funding. But by participating, Welniak is lending her scientific reputation to this nonsense, and seriously tarnishing it in the process.

I can’t imagine a better use for $630,000 of taxpayer-provided NIH funds, can you?


  1. I particularly like hearing about things like this after finding out that we've had another proposal not funded (although the reviewers thought very highly of it).

  2. Thought you might be interested in this "experiment", although it's kind of old. It was also supported by a grant from the NIH.


  3. I am finding all this astonishing! Where did the idea that something works just because it's been practiced for a thousand years? What's more is that nurses have to take several sciences classes and are still coming out without an ability to think critically or be skeptical. Science educators and science education have clearly failed in educating people to be skeptics and scientifically literate.

  4. I work in a hospital as a RN and I for one am shocked and dismayed that this institution, said to be a learning hospital, promotes TT and Reiki. We nurses are encouraged and some have been ordered to attend inservices instructing on the use of this bunk. I refuse to engage in such practices, although I have yet for it to be mandatory for me, but if it ever is I will be looking for another profession.

  5. Anonymous: since you're posting anonymously, can you tell us the name of your hospital?

  6. The Rosa et. al study was set up as a guessing game (guess which hand has a coin in it) and did not test the efficacy of Reiki or TT in any way shape or form. The Running and Welniak study is not aiming to see if Reiki and TT can "cure" cancer. The aim of the grant is to "determine the limits of Healing Touch to reduce tumor growth and symptoms of graft vs. Host disease in murine models." This includes assement of the effects of these modalities on immune system responses. The grant also aims to compare the ability of the Reiki and TT practitioners in assessing the health vs the clinical methods used for judging animal health.

    Please read the studies and do your research so you understand what Reiki and TT are and what they are not.

    1. Anon: Reiki and Therapeutic Touch are nothing more than magical thinking - no more sophisticated than a child's belief in the Tooth Fairy. There's not an iota of evidence to support them and plenty of evidence that they are complete nonsense. A proposal to study the effect of either of these on tumor growth would be laughed out of the room in any serious review panel. I do indeed "do my research", and I stand by my comments.

    2. Dear Author: As a PhD from Harvard and a professor from Johns Hopkins, I think it's safe to assume you would never base fact on other's work and opinions but more on your own experiences. I am an apprentice in the Healing Touch Program. I have an undergrad and Masters in Engr and am a professional strategist while doing energy work on the side. I have spent 7 years overseas and almost an entire year in Asia. I am still wet behind the ears in learning this but am studying the science and quantum physics that actually support it. I assure you as having spent 8 years in the military that I am not naive and jumping on the bandwagon. I continue on in this because of what I see with it. Skeptics are my favorite.

      Maybe it's possible your fairytale books are out of date. I challenge you to test your theory that this is hocus pocus. I challenge you to at least seek out and try it yourself. I am still an apprentice and therefore my energy work is free. Just so happens, I am in your local area. I'll offer that up to you, or I recommend to at least seek it out on your own. Then you will have a first hand opinion and not just hide behind others work and statistics. Sometimes this world is bigger than we think and pieces are beyond our current understanding of science.

      Are you up for it?

    3. Cathy Burton CrockerDecember 30, 2016 at 2:24 PM

      Thank you. At a minimum, can one acknowledge the benefit of the deep relaxation that can be experienced in an energy healing session, which is the opposite of the tension and stress that current medical research acknowledgea is so detrimental to health?

  7. I took three levels of Healing Touch. Each level was a weekend-long workshop. Nobody checked to see if we'd done our homework. At the third level, the teacher claimed she could "see" the "energy work" being done.

    I began as an open-minded skeptic who at least believed in the power of placebos, and I mean that in a good way. There's a lot to be said for shamanism, someone who's sympathetic to the suffering client, who treats the client like a person and not as an object in a medical assembly line.

    But at what cost the placebo effect? I saw what I considered to be unprofessional and unethical behaviors, and just plain arrogance and ignorance--again, in my opinion. While the actual claims made for HT were modest, if not non-existent, much was suggested.

    On the one hand, HT teaches "all healing is self-healing" and the practitioner only "offers" the energy to be used as the client wants. On the other hand, there's the suggestion that angels perform psychic surgery on the unseen (to us plebes) levels of the aura. Oddly, the celestial guys don't kick into action until an HT practitioner waves her hands about. Weird, huh?

    I'm guilty of self-delusion and I suspect others are too. Then again, I wonder if some people are out and out charlatans.

    Although I know that HT may produce a deep sense of relaxation, which causes healthy physical changes, I suggest that people learn their own ways of relaxing, or just hire a massage therapist.

    I just didn't feel right continuing with HT or even associating with the HT community.

    There you have it from someone who's had experience.


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