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Horses Help Heal Cancer Patients & Their Loved Ones

Neurosurgeon Teams Up with Resort for Cancer Patients to Teach Overcoming Fear & Sense of Powerlessness

Erikson, Jane

doi: 10.1097/
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TUCSON, AZ—A neurosurgeon known for his work with brain and spinal tumors has teamed up with a retreat for cancer patients to offer a new form of treatment: Horse therapy.

Allan J. Hamilton, MD, Professor of Surgery at the University of Arizona, works with Sunstone Healing Center to teach cancer patients and their family members ways to overcome the fear and sense of powerlessness that often accompany a cancer diagnosis.

“The idea,” he said, “is that a large animal like the horse can become a metaphor for something powerful and potentially out of control, and that we can use this metaphor to start talking about how we approach cancer, and the values and attitudes we want in order to bring about a successful survival.”

The idea came to Dr. Hamilton, as he explains it, one morning about two years ago as he was working with his horses on his ranch on the outskirts of Tucson. Within walking distance from his ranch is the Sunstone Healing Center—a place that appealed to his longstanding interest in combining conventional and alternative approaches to healing.

Dr. Hamilton approached Sunstone Executive Director Patricia Harmon, MSW, with his idea for equine therapy. The idea clicked.


“Our goal is to help people change their lives, to learn new ways of coping with cancer,” Ms. Harmon said. “And I can tell you that our participants tell us we help them do that. They talk about how empowering it is for them to work with the horses. And they talk about how the retreats really make a difference.”

Dr. Hamilton, along with his wife, Jane Hamilton, PhD, a clinical psychologist, organized their first equine retreats for youth in juvenile justice programs, and for students with the University of Arizona College of Medicine. The first retreat for cancer patients was held in 2003, for adults living with cancer.

Scenes from Sunstone Allan J. Hamilton, MD (left): “The idea is that a large animal like the horse can become a metaphor for something powerful and potentially out of control, and that we can use this metaphor to start talking about how we approach cancer, and the values and attitudes we want in order to bring about a successful survival.”

Additional retreats have been geared toward children with cancer, parents with cancer and their children, and cancer patients and their spouses or partners. Each of the retreats includes group psychotherapy directed by Dr. Jane Hamilton.

Each retreat takes place over four days, and includes several opportunities to work with the Hamiltons' horses. The basic exercise takes place in a corral with Dr. Anthony Hamilton gently coaching a cancer patient to take charge of a horse standing nearby. The encounter itself can be frightening. But the patient learns, for example, that by walking with her bowed, she can get the horse to follow her. If she extends her arms from her sides, the horse moves away. To bring the horse back to her, she has only to breathe deeply while looking away and down toward the ground.

Within minutes, the patient has realized that she can manage the horse and work in partnership with it to achieve her goals.

“Horses are very spiritual animals, and they are so tuned in to what their partners are communicating,” Dr. Hamilton said. “I've never seen a horse that will not respond to a human, given sufficient time and training.

You're working with their nature. You're not forcing the animal to do anything. You're asking the animal to cooperate, and for most horses that's something they will do willingly.”

Katy Johnson of Tucson attended a retreat in March 2004 with her daughter, Emma, then 7, who was being treated for neuroblastoma. Two months later, Emma would undergo a stem-cell transplant at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center. She is now doing well.

“Working with the horses was wonderful,” Ms. Johnson recalled recently. “It was enlightening. I went into it being a bit skeptical, but it was amazing to me the kinds of things we learned—a lot of communication skills, how to work together—plus it was fun because both Emma and I love to be around horses.”

The mother and daughter took part in the retreat knowing that the transplant would be their next hurdle. “It was a scary time for us,” Ms. Johnson said, “but the horse represents this big obstacle that you need to learn not to fear, together as mother and child. It was very symbolic for us.

“Learning to overcome our fear and control the horse helped us face the cancer and the transplant.”

One of the exercises—to halter up the horse and get it to run around the corral—became especially meaningful: “I had all the equipment and the tools, but I couldn't do anything,” Ms. Johnson said. “Emma didn't have any equipment, but I couldn't do anything unless she told me to do it.

”I think she learned that she can't do everything by herself, and I can't help her unless she clues me in—I can't do anything about it unless she lets me in.”

The retreat was transforming for Emma, who went into it shy and withdrawn, her mother said. “She went from keeping her hat on all the time and not wanting to look at anybody or talk to them, and by the last night she was letting the other kids paint on her bald head. It just really kind of set her free.”

Sunstone Healing Center is part of the nonprofit Sunstone Cancer Support Centers, which exists on grants and donations. James C. Lasker, MD, a medical oncologist in Birmingham, AL, helped fund the children's retreat in March 2004 that Katy Johnson and Emma attended. He attended it as well.

“I found it personally moving just to watch these young kids with serious illnesses grow during the course of a weekend,” Dr. Lasker said. “As a clinician, I'm always looking for new ways to be effective. For me, it's a calling and I was pleased to help with the retreat in any way I could.”

Dr. Hamilton sees his work with Sunstone as a model of how integrative medicine and supportive modalities can be used to create an environment that's very supportive of cancer patients.

For him personally, he said, the equine retreats are a kind of therapy as well. “So much of what we do in medicine focuses on cure rather than care,” he said. “I have come to embrace the idea that care is the one thing I can always provide.

“And I think we need to teach patients that what we're about is not just a cure-or-die phenomenon. It's live well with cancer, or live poorly with it.”

Dates & Fees

Sunstone Healing Center offers several equine retreats each year for cancer patients and family members. The usual fee is $750 for one participant, or $1,000 for two, and scholarships are available. The following is a brief list of upcoming retreats. Further and updated information is available by calling 520-795-1498 or on the Web site,

  • ▪ November 17–20, 2005: Adult Equine-Assisted Therapy & Cancer Survival Retreat
  • ▪ January 12–15, 2006: Equine Retreat for Cancer Survivors and Their Children
  • ▪ January 19–22, 2006: Helping Kids with Cancer Heal with the Help of Horses
© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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