Alberta researchers test light therapy to help with post-cancer fatigue

Massage Therapy Canada staff
October 15, 2013
By Massage Therapy Canada staff
Oct. 15, 2013 — A new research study involving Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the University of Calgary is now examining whether light therapy will help people with chronic fatigue who have successfully completed their treatment for cancer. Cancer-related fatigue is reported to be one of the most prevalent and distressing symptoms experienced by cancer patients and can last for several months or even years in up to a third of survivors.
"We know that exercise and changes to diet can help some of these people regain their energy, but they involve complex behaviour changes that aren’t always feasible in many cases," said Jillian Johnson, the study’s research co-ordinator and a PhD student in psychology at U of C.

"If light therapy proves to have some measurable benefits, then it could be an easily accessible and simple form of treatment with the potential to benefit many people."

Researchers will assess whether light therapy helps improve sleep, quality of life, immune function and measures of stress hormones in 128 people who have completed their cancer treatments for at least three months. Two different wavelengths of light will be tested to see if one is more effective than the other.

Although light therapy has been shown to help people with cancer-related fatigue during treatment, it has never been evaluated in survivors.

Light therapy has long proven beneficial to people suffering the low moods of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which can occur in the decreased daylight of fall and winter. In the case of cancer patients, it’s thought that light therapy may help reset the body’s sleep cycle, which potent chemotherapy agents can sometimes disrupt.

Dr. Linda Carlson, a psychologist with AHS’ CancerControl Psychosocial Resources department at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, is the co-principal investigator in the study, along with the U of C’s Dr. Tavis Campbell.

"For many people, cancer-related fatigue can be the one lingering obstacle to regaining a satisfying life after cancer," said Dr. Carlson.

Diane Franssen, a 66-year-old breast cancer survivor who participated in a pilot of the study, believes light therapy made a significant difference in her energy and quality of life.

"I’ll never forget it. After about a week of using the light therapy, I woke up one morning and my exhaustion was gone – I felt totally different," Franssen said. Diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2012, she underwent chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. After her treatment, she said she simply hit a wall of exhaustion that severely reduced her stamina and affected her sleep.

During the study, Franssen sat in front of a high-powered tabletop light therapy device every morning as she drank her coffee and read the news on her laptop. She was so convinced of the benefits of the practice that, after completing the pilot, she purchased a device to use on her own.

"I still don’t have all my strength and stamina back but a lot of the fatigue has gone away and I’m sleeping a lot better," she says.

To be eligible, study participants must be at least three months clear of their final cancer treatment and must not be a shift worker or suffer from sleep apnea. Participants will be required to give blood, maintain a sleep diary, use a light therapy device daily for four weeks, and visit a lab at U of C four times.

Anyone interested in participating should phone 403-210-8606 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . More information can be found at

The study is supported by the Canadian Cancer Society and the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

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