EMDR and cancer: A pilot study to evaluate the effectiveness of EMDR in a sample of cancer patients


The diagnosis and treatment of cancer are potential traumatic stressors, even if the specific triggers that cause PTSD-like symptomatology are uncertain. The cancer experience embraces a long series of traumatic events, which may begin at the time of diagnosis and continue for several years following treatment. The EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) approach is an empirically validated treatment for traumatic life experiences, including negative life experiences which commonly occur during medical practice (Shapiro, 2014).

Criteria for participation in the study included documented cancer disease and approval by the subject. Participants were 18 cancer patients in treatment (stages I-III), with mixed diagnosis. Patients were administered at baseline (T0), after 6 sessions (T1) and after 12 sessions of EMDR (T2), with the SCL-90 Symptoms Checklist (Derogatis et al., 1973), the Cope Inventory (Carver et al., 1989), the Davidson Trauma Scale (Davidson et al., 1997) and the Post-Traumatic Grow Index (Tedeschi, Calhoun, 1995).

We performed the Friedman test to assess the significance between the data at T0 and the values obtained at T2. A P-value of less than 0.01 was considered significant. After 12 session of EMDR, our sample reported a remission of the PTSD symptomatology (re-experiencing, avoidance and hyper-arousal). Furthermore, we found a decrease in mean scores concerning somatization disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, feelings of personal inadequacy and hostility, anxiety and depression, phobias, sleep disorders, paranoid ideation and psychoticism. Active coping strategies and positive reinterpretation were improved, while there were no significant changes with regard to religious coping and use of social support.

Interpretation of our data must be considered exploratory due to the small sample size and the lack of a control group, but the quantitative and qualitative data consistently suggest that the participants experienced clinically significant and worthwhile outcomes. The processing and elaboration of past and present traumas appear to be particularly valuable to cancer patients. The EMDR protocol seems to lead to a significant reduction in the various forms of psychological complications that arise as a result of a cancer diagnosis, not only in the post-traumatic symptomatology spectrum, but also in other domains of psychological problems.

Research Implications:
Although the use of EMDR protocol in the psycho-oncological context has shown some promises as an effective intervention, especially for post-traumatic stress symptomatology, well-controlled comparative outcome studies are required to establish its efficacy. Moreover, randomized studies on larger samples are needed to generalize our findings regarding the EMDR efficacy with this population.

Clinical Implications:
In an holistic perspective, the AIP (Adaptive Information Processing, Shapiro 1995, 2001, 2002, 2007; Solomon and Shapiro 2008; Shapiro and Laliotis, 2011) model and the use of the EMDR protocol were useful to process the most challenging aspects of both traumatic events in the patients’ pasts and their emotional experiences with the disease itself (e.g. diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, etc.).

Acknowledgement of Funding: We thank the Centro Studi PIIEC (Psicoterapia Integrata Immaginativa ad Espressione Corporea, Milan–Italy), the Edo and Elvo Tempia Foundation (Biella–Italy) and the Italian EMDR Association for their support in this study. A special thanks to the patients participating in this project.






Cristina Civilotti
Stefania Sacchezin
Tiziana Agazzi
Gabriella Modolo
Elisa Poli
Chiara Callerame
Elise Faretta

Original Work Citation

Civilotti, C., Sacchezin, S., Agazzi, T., Modolo, G., Poli,
E., Callerame, C., & Faretta, E. (2014, October). EMDR and cancer: A pilot study to evaluate the effectiveness of EMDR in a sample of cancer patients. Psycho-Oncology, 23(Supplement 3), 226–227. doi:10.1111/j.1099-1611.2014.3695



“EMDR and cancer: A pilot study to evaluate the effectiveness of EMDR in a sample of cancer patients,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed August 5, 2021, https://emdria.omeka.net/items/show/24159.

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