You are a cancer patient, and after weeks of chemotherapy treatment, you’re in search of symptom relief. After sourcing a few suggestions, you’ve settled on alternative medicine. Inside a dimly lit room, you lie on a padded massage table. A practitioner hovers her hands over you, at times incorporating a light touch that guides energy throughout your body and balances its flow.
This is reiki, a holistic Japanese practice originating in the early 20th century utilizing the body’s own natural healing energy to promote balance in mind, body, and spirit. Practitioners lightly touch or hover their hands above a client’s body to promote relaxation, calm, and healing for both physical and mental afflictions. Practitioners believe that energy flows within the body can be unblocked, redirected, and balanced. Individuals seek reiki treatment for things like cancer, depression, PTSD, chronic pain, anxiety, and other ailments. The reiki master taps into different energy points using 11 traditional hand placements. These placements direct energy from head to toe, traveling from eyes, temples, and neck down over the abdomen, finishing at the bottom of the feet. Those receiving reiki report feelings of calm energy, warmth, and even tingling in their body throughout a session.
Reiki’s rise in popularity comes at a time in which Americans are increasingly turning to holistic, natural practices. According to a study published in the journal JAMA Oncology, one-third of all people with a cancer diagnosis use complementary or alternative medicines including meditation, yoga, and herbal treatments. These practices can ease the difficulties presented by treatments like surgery or chemotherapy, which often create side effects like nausea or pain. After a cancer diagnosis, noninvasive care practices like reiki create space for peace and teach individuals how to care for their mind and body during treatment. More than ever before, hospitals and cancer care centers hire reiki practitioners as a resource for patients, or recommend the practice in addition to a patient’s regular treatment regimen.
Reiki practitioners attempt to address the link between body, mind, and spirit, acknowledging how chronic physical pain can lead to mental anguish. Increased anxiety, depression, and insomnia are common side effects of cancer treatment and are known to weaken the body. By addressing these complications, doctors and reiki healers hope to improve a patient’s chances of recovering from their treatment and disease.
“I refer to reiki as a complementary healing modality, because complementary means ‘in addition to.’ It’s not about curing; it’s about healing,” says Jane Van De Velde, DNP, R.N., reiki master, and founder of the Reiki Share Project. Through her organization, Van De Velde coordinates reiki treatments with a focus on cancer patients, offering sessions in the suburbs of Chicago at places like Wellness House and Elmhurst Hospital.
Ultimately, Van De Velde says, the Reiki Share Project’s main mission is education. Through classes offered by the organization, patients, family members, and even health care providers can learn to administer reiki. Learning the practice comprises three levels of training. At each level, the student receives attunement, a practice which makes them receptive to reiki energy. Level one training covers reiki history, self-reiki practices, and an introduction to practicing on others. After level two training, students are considered reiki practitioners. They receive more attunement and learn reiki symbols, as well as the methods for channeling reiki to someone without physical proximity, called distant reiki. Following level three, practitioners become reiki masters, allowing them to teach others.
For more than a decade, Wellness House, a cancer care center with 17 locations throughout the Chicagoland area, has partnered with the Reiki Share Project and Jane Van De Velde. In 2018 alone, Wellness House saw 125 patients make 320 reiki program visits.
“Although there are many benefits of reiki, the main goals of reiki appointments at Wellness House are stress reduction and relaxation. Participants learn about Reiki as a stress management tool,” says Tracy Lester, wellness and education programs manager at Wellness House.
Because reiki focuses on balancing energy flows in an individual’s body and mind, many cancer patients who incorporate the practice into their routine see improved sleep patterns and reduced stress, anxiety, and physical pain.
“It’s all about putting people into a different place,” Van De Velde says. “The relaxation response moves them from the sympathetic nervous system fight-or-flight response into what we call parasympathetic, or rest and digest.”
As a holistic, complementary healing practice, reiki is slowly making its way into the lexicon of health care providers across the nation. In Illinois, the Reiki Share Project makes it their mission to bridge that gap between methods, promoting complete balance between the mind, body, and spirit. Van De Velde’s nursing credentials make it possible for her to translate the language of reiki into something more easily understood in the health care world, a step which she hopes will bring reiki into the spotlight for doctors looking for better ways to support their patients through treatment.
“We have to frame it in a way that will be in line with the way health care providers think, because evidence-based practice is really paramount in health care,” Van De Velde says. “Reiki has a place there, and I really focus on the relaxation response which is a measurable scientific response.”
At Elmhurst Hospital’s outpatient cancer center, Reiki Share Project volunteers offering reiki to patients during chemotherapy sessions since 2012. Patients can elect to receive 15 minutes of reiki in their seat while receiving their chemotherapy infusion, and volunteers also offer treatment to family members and staff. Reiki recipients are asked to rate their pain and anxiety from one to 10 before and after treatment; Van De Velde tracks the data which is then incorporated into patient charts.
“We’ve been able to gather good evidence that the response is positive in terms of relaxation, lessening pain, and relieving anxiety, but we don’t have a lot of evidence of the biological response of the mechanism of action yet. There’s not a lot of research money going towards these larger studies right now,” Van De Velde says.
Until funding increases, organizations like the Reiki Share Project will continue leading the way by connecting traditional Western medicine with this holistic Japanese modality. For individuals seeking relief from cancer treatment side effects, reiki opens the door to surrender and ease.