Hynotherapy for Healing after Cancer with Norman Plotkin, CHt

Navigating My Cancer Diagnosis

When I was diagnosed in 2011 with papillary carcinoma, a form of thyroid cancer, I had a team of skilled and competent medical professionals. My team started with my primary care physician, who skillfully figured out what was wrong with me over a period of several years through a series of forensic tests. Later, my endocrinologist coordinated with a pathologist and surgeon, and then began my post-surgical therapy that included scans and hormone replacement therapy. It was a very logical and linear process facilitated by educated, talented individuals.

But I saw each of them as a snapshot in time, and although they performed their functions, they were absent from the overall fabric of my life during a scary and uncertain time. My marriage became strained and my business faltered. These factors triggered a continuous stress response, which is a condition not conducive to healing. In hindsight, it’s no wonder the cancer returned six months later and a second round of radiation was necessary.

Using Integrative Modalities in My Cancer Care

Fortunately, during my cancer treatment, I found a dear friend who had chucked her job in politics and opened a yoga studio. She took me through therapeutic yoga for cancer; she taught me mindfulness and meditation. She taught me an overview of Ayurveda and helped me to understand and tailor my practices to my particular dosha (for more information, please see this Ayurveda article). I’m a pitta (fiery) type, and my friend and yoga teacher taught me how to eat in a healthier way to balance my pitta constitution, as well as showing me how to engage in periodic cleanses and do abhyanga, or oil massages.

Ultimately, I believe that the gateway to unlocking my healing was meditation. Turning off my overactive mind and being still and quiet for increasing stretches of time allowed me to turn off the stress response and to turn on the relaxation response. And then, true healing began. What also happened was that I gained a whole new understanding of the power of the mind. I read books by amazing teachers like Caroline Myss, Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra. I investigated the world of integrative medicine, including how hypnotherapy and the power of the subconscious mind can empower people with cancer to engage in their own healing.

Hypnotherapy is an organic, non-invasive modality that in its deceptive simplicity unlocks the power of the subconscious mind. Through my investigation, I found there were substantive certifications available in the field of hypnotherapy and I decided that this was exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I shut down my contract lobbying firm and moved from Sacramento to Los Angeles to attend the only nationally accredited college of hypnotherapy. I completed the course of study and graduated as a certified clinical hypnotherapist. I also sought and attained additional certifications for specialization in helping clients with smoking cessation, post-traumatic stress disorder, pain management, pre- and post-surgery and of most interest to me, hypnotherapy for cancer clients.

Benefits of Hypnotherapy for Cancer Patients and Survivors

It turns out that there is a growing body of research that establishes the efficacy of hypnotherapy in the cancer setting. I believe it is the missing thread in the fabric of care I referenced above, the modern tumor model of care embraced by evidence-based medicine.

Stress and anxiety reduction elicit the relaxation response that sets the stage for healing. Imagery journeys connect the client with their own healing capacity and finally, the facilitated release of repressed emotions allows for freedom from the confines of old behavior and belief patterns which clears the way for lasting wellness. These are the gifts that I have been fortunate enough to be able to bring to my clients as the direct result of my own personal journey of transformation.

What is Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy?

What exactly is hypnosis? Surprisingly, this question is fairly complex. The table attached below outlines the various attempts by organizations and authors to characterize the modality through published definitions of hypnosis. The common denominator is that there is a hypnotist and a client. Moreover, it is generally accepted that “suggestions” are the key ingredient. However, missing from these definitions are two critical components that are essential elements in the efficacy of the hypnotic modality: 1.) client consent- you cannot make anyone do something they do not want to do or are morally opposed to doing; and, 2.) the intervention must be intended to be helpful.

Practically speaking, the client will experience a deeply relaxed physical state while at the same time experiencing a heightened state of focus. The heightened state of focus may be intermittently interrupted by a feeling of drifting between the conscious and subconscious aspects of the mind. In the deepest state of hypnosis, somnambulism, the client may experience amnesia, although the subconscious takes in the full experience.

The therapy in hypnotherapy is related to the actual suggestions offered to the client while in the hypnotic state. The relative skill of the hypnotherapist lies in the ability to place the patient in a trance, the deeper the better, and to then offer relevant suggestions related to the client’s issue or concern. The session’s relative success is a combination of the relevance of the suggestions, the depth of the trance, and the strength of the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the client, informally referred to as rapport.

Research on the Benefits of Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy, far from the stage and showmanship hypnosis that occupies so many people’s perception, has grown as an integrative modality within the complementary or integrative care offerings of many hospitals.  There is a growing body of research, much of it coming out of Stanford University, documenting the physiological explanations of what is at work within the brain in hypnosis, as well as the efficacy of its application as a complementary measure.

Unfortunately, as a society we tend to malign what we do not understand, and because hypnotherapy is deceptively simple it is widely misunderstood. Consequently, hypnotherapy and specifically hypnosis tends to get a bad rap and is a frequent easy target of Hollywood. Case in point is the recent movie, “Get Out,” wherein it is used as a tool of manipulation and subjugation. Never mind that no one can be made to do anything against their will, but it makes for high theater! As a result, people can be reluctant to add hypnotherapy to their therapeutic plan.

Nevertheless, research continues and hypnotherapy continues to be applied in beneficial ways. A report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, cites evidence supporting the efficacy of hypnosis for relief of chronic pain in cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, and tension headaches[1]. In the cancer setting, hypnotherapy is used to reduce stress and anxiety, both conditions ever-present after a diagnosis, and typically throughout the recovery and healing process. The resolution of the stress and anxiety turn off the stress response and activate the relaxation response, which is where healing takes place. Beyond anxiety and stress reduction, hypnotherapy is also effective in facilitating therapeutic imagery journeys where the client visualizes healing. Also, hypnotherapy can be effective at releasing repressed emotions that many cancer clients tend to hold on to and that complicate healing.

In a study concluding in 2015 that included 150 participants, a researcher and nurse at the City of Hope Cancer Center found that 78% of those who used hypnosis experienced significant, lasting reduction in symptoms such as anxiety, pain, sleeplessness, fatigue, nausea and vomiting[2].

In an article entitled “Hypnosis for Cancer Care: Over 200 Years Young” in a journal for clinicians, the authors noted that “Hypnosis has been used to provide psychological and physical comfort to individuals diagnosed with cancer for nearly 200 years.” The stated goals of the review were: 1) to describe hypnosis and its components and to dispel misconceptions; 2) to provide an overview of hypnosis as a cancer prevention and control technique (covering its use in weight management, smoking cessation, as an adjunct to diagnostic and treatment procedures, survivorship, and metastatic disease); and 3) to discuss future research directions. Overall, the literature supports the benefits of hypnosis for improving quality of life during the course of cancer and its treatment.”[3]

Dr. David Spiegel is Associate Chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Medical Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he has been since 1975. Dr. Spiegel has been at the forefront of research with the goal of exploring the simple question: what’s going on in the brain when you’re hypnotized? For some people, hypnosis is associated with loss of control or stage tricks, or the Hollywood representation noted above. But doctors like Spiegel know it to be a serious science, revealing the brain’s ability to heal medical and psychiatric conditions[4].

“Hypnosis is the oldest Western form of psychotherapy, but it’s been tarred with the brush of dangling watches and purple capes,” Spiegel recently stated. “In fact, it’s a very powerful means of changing the way we use our minds to control perception and our bodies.”

In some ways, hypnotherapy is the ultimate therapeutic partnership, a relationship that forms between a patient and clinician that empowers the patient to take ownership of their own healing. In this partnership, healing can be fully realized when patients become active participants in the development of their therapeutic plan. As an active participant people feel more in control of their own health and are more likely to make sustained lifestyle changes that will lead to improved health.

In addition to the growing body of evidence of the non-invasive power of hypnotherapy in the medical setting, there are the well-accepted applications of using hypnotherapy for behavioral change such as smoking cessation and weight loss, sports performance, test preparation and other habit control measures. Many people have utilized hypnotherapy to reach goals and to make positive change in their life because it works. In an era when chemical therapy is too often a first resort and we can be too quick to reach for a pill, which in some cases has side effects that require a second pill, hypnotherapy poses a process in which client and practitioner can work together using natural processes for health and betterment.

My Journey of Transformation after Cancer with Hypnotherapy

I’m a former lobbyist and cancer survivor who has found my passion for helping people through coaching, practicing hypnotherapy, speaking, and writing around wellness, healing and recovery. During a 25-year career in and around state government, I gained powerful insights into health policy and the internal workings of the practice of medicine as a committee Consultant to the California State Assembly Health Committee and a lobbyist for the California Medical Association. I graduated from the nationally accredited Hypnosis and Motivation Institute (HMI) and am certified by and a member of the American Hypnosis Association as well as the International Medical and Dental Hypnotherapy Association. Among other specialties I’m certified in hypnotherapy for cancer clients. I have recently expanded my offering to include coaching on the seven proven factors that make a real difference for cancer patients, or anyone with chronic illness, for true healing and recovery and am finishing my book on the subject due the end of June.

My journey led me to the power of hypnotherapy and I’m on a mission to share this organic, non-invasive, deceptively simple modality with anyone who wants to make positive change in their life and deploy the power of the subconscious mind in healing and wellness.

On my journey, I have discovered, often the hard way, the power of the therapeutic partnership and learned to be an active participant in my care plan. What I found was that I felt more in control and made consistent lifestyle changes that have led to improved health. My ultimate goal is that my experience and research will enable me to positively impact the lives of survivors and their families. I am writing a book, due to my publisher shortly. The book will be titled Take Charge of Your Cancer, and in it, I describe the seven steps to true healing, which I believe are: meditation, diet, deepened spirituality, working with the subconscious through hypnotherapy, dealing with emotions (releasing repressed and fostering positive) taking control of your health and having a reason to live.

I have three children and a grandchild. One of my most amazing life experiences was taking my daughter through hypnobirthing, which resulted in a 24-minute delivery delivering on her desire for natural childbirth without drugs! I live in Los Angeles, CA, where I can be found, when not seeing clients, cutting through traffic on my Yamaha. I can be contacted at norm@normanplotkin.com or 818-276-6128, and you can find more information on hypnosis and my services on my website, normanplotkin.com.


[1] National Institutes of Health. Integration of behavioral and relaxation approaches into the treatment of chronic pain and insomnia. JAMA. 1996; 276(4):313-318.
[2] https://www.researchgate.net/project/Nurse-Led-Hypnosis-Service
[3] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3322/caac.21165/full
[4] Study identifies brain areas altered during hypnotic trances; Stanford Medicine News Center, 7/28/16

Hypnosis Definitions Table

Courtesy of Norman Plotkin, references cited below.

Citation Definition
Kihlstrom 19851 A situation or set of procedures in which a person designated as the hypnotist suggests that another person designated as the patient experience various changes in sensation, perception, cognition, or control over motor behavior.
Killeen & Nash 20032 A hypnotic procedure is a protocol used to establish a hypnotic situation and evaluate responses to it. In such situations, one person (the subject) is guided by another (the hypnotist) to respond to suggestions for alterations in perception, thought, and action. If the constellation of responses to standardized suggestions satisfies a criterion, we infer that the procedure induced a hypnotic state. Hypnotic responses are those responses and experiences characteristic of the hypnotic state.
Spiegel & Greenleaf 20053 Hypnosis (or trance) is an animated, altered, integrated state of focused consciousness (ie, controlled imagination). It is an attentive, receptive state of concentration that can be activated readily and measured. It requires some degree of dissociation to enter and become involved in imagined activity, enough concentration for an individual to maintain a certain level of absorption, and some degree of suggestibility to take in new premises.
American Society of Clinical Hypnosis Hypnosis is a state of inner absorption, concentration, and focused attention. It is like using a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun and make them more powerful. Similarly, when our minds are concentrated and focused, we are able to use them more powerfully. Because hypnosis allows people to use more of their potential, learning self-hypnosis is the ultimate act of self-control.
American Psychological Association, Division 304 Hypnosis is a procedure during which a health professional or researcher suggests while treating someone, that he or she experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts or behavior. Although some hypnosis is used to make people more alert, most hypnosis includes suggestions for relaxation, calmness and well-being. Instructions to imagine or think about pleasant experiences are also commonly included during hypnosis. People respond to hypnosis in different ways. Some describe hypnosis as a state of focused attention, in which they feel very calm and relaxed. Most people describe the experience as pleasant.
Montgomery 20105 Hypnosis is an agreement between a person designated as the hypnotist and a person designated as the client or patient to participate in a psychotherapeutic technique based on the hypnotist providing suggestions for changes in sensation, perception, cognition, affect, mood, or behavior.

Table References:

1 Kihlstrom JF. Hypnosis. Annu Rev Psychol. 1985; 36: 385-41
2 Killeen PR, Nash MR. The four causes of hypnosis. Int J Clin Exp Hypn. 2003; 51: 195-231.
3 Spiegel H, Greenleaf M. Commentary: defining hypnosis. Am J Clin Hypn. 2005; 48: 111-116.
4 http://www.apa.org/topics/hypnosis/media.aspx.
5 Montgomery GH, Hallquist MN, Schnur JB, David D, Silverstein JH, Bovbjerg DH. Mediators of a brief hypnosis intervention to control side effects in breast surgery patients: response expectancies and emotional distress. J Consult Clin Psychol 2010; 78: 80-88.