Let’s Get Sciencey: Cancer Studies and the Practitioners Involved

If you have ever been on the search for a Reiki practitioner or any subtle energy practitioner, you have probably asked yourself whether it matters who you get. Or, maybe you’ve had a particularly good or particularly bad healing experience and you wondered whether or not it had anything to do with the practitioner. I’ll try to shed some light on that question by talking about two studies that were done on two different subtle energy healing practices and cancer.

Subtle energy healing techniques have been around for centuries, but it has only been recently that we have applied the standard research and clinical study models to them. Unfortunately, there are several problems with applying the conventional study models to non-conventional treatments. As a matter of fact, there are so many problems and those problems run so deep that I can only talk about one at a time.

This time, I’ll talk about the individuality of the practitioner. I chose these two studies because they’re both compelling and I think that when we compare them to one another, they say something about practitioners.

In most conventional study design, the focus is on the treatment, not the administrator of the treatment. They often control for this by not allowing the administrator to know whether he is giving someone the real deal or a placebo. When administering a subtle energy technique, that’s kind of impossible. Also, given that each individual practitioner is an individual, she brings her own particular set of talents, knowledge and history to the table every time she practices. Every person is unique and every situation is unique.

The Studies

The first one is on the grizzly side and definitely not for animal lovers, but it turned up some interesting data.

William Bengston is a subtle energy practitioner who doesn’t believe in subtle energy healing, or at least he says he didn’t until he discovered that his techniques could cure cancer. He tried for decades to get his data studied by conventional medicine, but no one would touch it. He eventually gave up and went back to his regular job as a professor of sociology.

Bengston did the same study a few times, tweaking it each time to improve the design. The details of that were chronicled in his book, The Energy Cure. You can read the last study that he did by clicking on the following title (warning: this study was conducted on mice and there are some photos of mice that had been injected with cancer cells): The Effect of the “Laying On of Hands” on Transplanted Breast Cancer in Mice.¹”

To summarize: Bengston trained skeptics and non-believers in his subtle energy technique and asked them to try to cure the mice of cancer. One of the problems that he found with study design is that the control mice kept getting healed, too (despite being injected with double-doses of cancer). Because of this, he started sending a set of control mice off-site to an undisclosed location.

These were the results of his last experiment: 29 out of 33 “experimental” mice remitted (the mice getting intentional treatments), 18 out of 26 on-site control mice remitted (presumably unintentionally healed because the volunteers were aware of the location of the control mice and visited them sometimes). Zero out of 8 off-site control mice remitted and ended up dying in a way that is considered “normal” for someone who has been injected with cancer cells. As you can tell, Bengston was cut off before he could conduct larger scale and more serious studies. According to his book, there was no support and no money to continue.

The second study is a little more mundane, but it also turned up compelling data. It’s called The Effect of Therapeutic Touch on Pain and Fatigue of Cancer Patients Undergoing Chemotherapy.

This study was for a subtle energy technique called Therapeutic Touch. From what I can tell, TT is less popular than Reiki, but it was apparently big in the 1980s. The reason I like this particular study is because it contained 90 participants, making it much bigger than most studies done on subtle energy healing.

There is nothing scary or grizzly about this study, except that all 90 people were cancer sufferers. It was also oddly controlled—they used the same practitioner for both the “real” treatment and the “placebo” treatment, demonstrating that she was probably pretty experienced and knew what she was doing or was at least confident in her ability to control the technique herself. The odd part was that she was right because the placebo group did not do as well as the group that received the real treatment.  As usual, the control group got the worst results.

No one was cured of cancer, or at least, if anyone was cured of cancer, it wasn’t mentioned in the study because this study wasn’t about that. They used a couple of different measures for the pain and fatigue that is associated with conventional chemotherapy treatments.

According to study results:

“Pain scores of the experimental group were reduced compared to placebo and control groups’ pain scores significantly.²”


“Fatigue scores of the experimental group were reduced compared to placebo and control groups’ fatigue scores significantly.²”

I can’t really quote much more than that because the results contain lots of complex info with charts and graphs. It would be much easier for you to click the link above and look at the study yourself. It will tell you how they set up the placebo, the control groups and the measurements that were done.

The Practitioner

Given the results and slight background on these studies, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say that the practitioner matters.  In the first study, the newly-trained practitioners unintentionally caused a healing response in the control group by merely being in proximity of them, or in some cases, by just being aware of the location of the control group.  In the other, the practitioner could set up the exact same atmosphere and situation with the placebo group and give them a placebo.

Right now, in most studies that are done on subtle energy practices, the practitioner is not even identified (let alone his/her experience or level of training).  When studies are designed, they try to control for everything except the treatment itself.  This makes sense when we’re studying something like a drug.  One pill-hand-out-person is pretty much the same as the next one.  When we’re studying something like a subtle energy technique, we don’t know enough about it to say whether one practitioner is the same as the next one, but most studies still use the old it-doesn’t-matter-who-it-is design.

As a practitioner myself, I have found that every healing session is unique to itself. As we pass through time, we are constantly changing. A healing session is the result of the intersection of who the practitioner is at the time, who you are at the time, and the new entity that is created by the healing. Does it matter who you get? I say yes, but with one huge caveat: There isn’t enough information out there for anyone else to tell you who the best practitioner is for you. If you are seeking healing, you are the most important component of that process, so find a practitioner that works for you.

In the future I hope to blog about studies that measured the autonomic nervous system, anxiety and depression while receiving subtle energy treatments, so keep in touch!

¹Bengston, W., & Krinsley, D. (2000). The Effect of the “Laying On of Hands” on Transplanted Breast Cancer in Mice. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 14(3), 353-364.
²Aghabati, N., Mohammadi, E., & Pour Esmaiel, Z. (2010). The Effect of Therapeutic Touch on Pain and Fatigue of Cancer Patients Undergoing Chemotherapy. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 7(3), 375–381. doi:10.1093/ecam/nen006



  1. Amy,

    Great post! On the other side of your well-built argument, I’d like to add: even if strength or energy of the practitioner didn’t matter, the reaction of the patient to the practitioner makes all the difference. In other words, I’m not one to say that training actually implies a better practitioner, though so one would hope. As you well know personal practice, ethics, experience, personal inclination, and self reflection contribute as well. Most of all, as you point out, how receptive the patient is counts more than anything. So if someone doesn’t feel open to a practitioner off the table, chances are, they’ll be less open on the table as well. So the less effective treatment can have everything to do with the openness of the patient, and less to the practitioner. Hard to research indeed!


  2. This is an interesting discussion. I wouldn’t say that one practitioner is necessarily better than another. We’re all different and we all have different things to offer. I have heard of amazing practitioners that can affect everything except cancer. William Bengston found that he affects cancer, but he can’t do anything for a wart or the common cold. Training and experience are definitely important questions to ask when doing a research or clinical study (mainly because we want to find out how that affects the outcome, if at all). When you look at the studies, one contained barely trained volunteers unintentionally curing cancer. To me, these are definitely not bad practitioners! Uncontrolled maybe, but extremely good. This shows that training may actually have very little to do with effectiveness or maybe it depends on how you were trained, what you were trained to do, etc.

  3. Also, your point: “As you well know personal practice, ethics, experience, personal inclination, and self reflection contribute as well,” is a good one.

    This has definitely been my experience in my practice, but it’s hard to say for other practitioners. I think that it’s very likely that self-cultivation is necessary to maintain a long-term practice. Without that, it’s very hard to grow as a practitioner or even continue to practice. Eventually, we have to face our “stuff” when we do energy work. If we don’t, it chafes against us and forces us to limit our practice. Is that true for everyone? I don’t know, but I think it’s likely.

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