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The stress and anxiety that results from the feeling that you are no longer in control of your life because you have cancer can be difficult to overcome. Traditionally, patients were given prescription drugs or advised to attend group support sessions and/or sessions with a professional therapist. However, there is a new method of managing this stress call biofeedback, which allows patients to feel they do still have some control.

What is biofeedback?

Biofeedback teaches cancer patients to manipulate physical responses that are controlled by the automatic nervous system, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. The techniques are taught by a certified biofeedback therapist.

Monitoring electrodes, which are connected to a computer, are positioned on the patient’s body or scalp. The electrodes give off a signal that indicates the intensity of the response that needs to be controlled. The biofeedback therapist gives the patients a series of mental exercises, and the patient is instructed to concentrate on trying to lower the signal while performing these exercises. The patient is also asked to visualized images that can change one’s moods. Over time, which is typically a minimum of 10 sessions, the patient learns which mental exercise and images lower the signal, and in that way the patient can manage involuntary processes like heart rate and blood pressure.

When the patient is successful in learning these techniques, they experience a decrease in stress and an increase in the ability to relax. It also generally improves the patient’s overall quality of life. Biofeedback uses different methods of evaluating the intensity of involuntary responses.

According to the American Cancer Society, biofeedback therapists use the following methods of determining how strong the response to be managed is:

  • An electromyogram (EMG) measures the electrical activity of muscles. It is used in conventional medicine to diagnose a variety of nerve and muscle diseases and in biofeedback to help heal muscle injuries and relieve chronic pain and some types of incontinence.
  • Thermal biofeedback provides information about skin temperature, which is a good indicator of blood flow.
  • Electrodermal activity (EDA) shows changes in perspiration rate, which is an indicator of anxiety.
  • Finger pulse measurements are used to reflect high blood pressure, heart beat irregularities, and anxiety.
  • Breathing rate is also monitored. This measurement is used to treat asthma and hyperventilation and to promote relaxation.

Researchers Explore Using Biofeedback to Affect Breathing Rates in Lung Cancer Patients Undergoing Radiation

In a study titled “Design and Evaluation of a Methodology to Perform Personalized Visual Biofeedback for Reducing Respiratory Amplitude in Radiation Treatment”, published May 2009 in Medical Physics, researchers examined how to use biofeedback to maintain a consistent level of breathing in lung cancer patients undergoing radiation.

The study involved ten healthy volunteers and five lung cancer patients. Tests were performed on all of the participants to determine low-high range of their normal breathing pattern. The information was then fed into a custom-made software package that created a personalized biofeedback program for each participant so that their breathing rate could be controlled to keep it within their normal range.

After eight sessions of receiving biofeedback during radiation, the researchers observed that:

  • Eight of the healthy volunteers and three of the lung cancer patients remained within normal range for more than 90 percent of the time
  • All of the participants remained within normal range for more than 80 percent of the time
  • Patients with shallow breathing were able to breathe more normally because of the biofeedback
  • All of the participants except for two lung cancer patients found the biofeedback program comfortable

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