When her breast cancer returned, spreading to the spine and causing excruciating back pain, Robin Conyers was willing to try almost anything to fight back.
Conyers, 53, of Glenview, agreed to participate in a first-of-its-kind national study that measures the effectiveness of reflexology on advanced breast cancer. The unconventional treatment is used to reduce stress and pain by applying pressure to areas of the foot. “In the beginning, I thought it was someone massaging your feet,” said Conyers, an executive with Kraft Foods Inc. “Who doesn’t love that?”
She now believes reflexology is much more than that, and researchers hope to prove as much during the five-year study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. Research results won’t be available until 2010, when the data is analyzed.
“It is the first study of its kind in reflexology” to use such rigorous methodology, said David Victorson, research associate at NorthShore University HealthSystem,which has hospitals in Evanston, Glenview, Highland Park and Skokie.
“There are some physicians who still think it’s kind of quackery and voodoo magic and may not be open to the discussion,” he said. “The problem with that is a vast number of patients don’t tell their doctors that they’re doing these things, such as taking supplements.”
Conyers is a patient at NorthShore, where researchers are working under the direction of a principal investigator based at Michigan State University‘s College of Nursing.
At least 339 patients with advanced forms of breast cancer are participating in the study and have been assigned to one of three groups. One group is treated with authentic reflexology techniques; the second receives placebo foot massages; and the third is offered no form of the therapy.
All continue to receive conventional chemotherapy treatment for stage III and IV breast cancer.
Each participant completes in-depth questionnaires before and after each reflexology session, to determine the impact on quality of life.
Conyers, who completed her sessions last March, was informed afterward that she had received professional reflexology.
“My belief is that this, combined with my other therapy, my chemo, has made a difference,” said Conyers, who said she felt more balanced and felt less pain for about six weeks after each session.
She was initially diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago, leading to radiation therapy and a mastectomy. She thought she was in the clear for more than a decade until she awakened one day late in 2007 with severe back pain.
“It found me again,” said Conyers, who has endured chemotherapy for 14 months. “Cancer, I found, is a bit of a coward. It sneaks up on you.”
Since her role in the study ended, she began making her own appointments with trained reflexologists, who use thumb and finger pressure technique on the feet, hands and outer ears to relieve stress.
Sarah Preusker, a practitioner who is providing reflexology or placebo massages in the study, said that the treatments lower anxiety.
“There are thousands of nerves that are stimulated,” she said. “The body is an amazing thing, and it will always strive to achieve homeostasis or balance. Due to stress, it is not always able to do that. By pressing the feet and improving circulation, we are assisting the body in healing itself.”
Should reflexology prove an effective treatment alongside conventional medicine, physicians may consider using it more routinely, Victorson said.
“Research is really where you can start to change minds and open attitudes,” he said.
Interested NorthShore health system patients can call 224-364-7310 to find out if they are eligible to participate. firstname.lastname@example.org