Women with breast cancer who visualise their white blood cells waging war against the disease are boosting their immune systems in a way which could help them fight the illness, new research shows.

Women with breast cancer who visualise their white blood cells waging war against the disease are boosting their immune systems in a way which could help them fight the illness, new research shows.

The women were taught relaxation techniques and encouraged to visualise soldiers with bayonets killing the malignant cells.

The findings have far-reaching implications for the 250,000 people who are diagnosed with cancer each year. Although it has yet to be seen whether the techniques can prolong survival, those who took part in the study reported a better quality of life and fewer physical side-effects from medical and surgical treatment.

Professor Leslie Walker, a clinical psychologist at Hull University who conducted the study, said that the findings were important to cancer sufferers. "It is an intriguing and exciting finding as it indicates that simple psychological intervention can have measurable biological effects in terms of the body's host defences. However, it is important to stress that the effects of these induced changes on the cancer survival rate is not known. So far there is no direct evidence that these psychological interventions can prolong survival. But, potentially, it could help people to fight the disease."

He said that the case for altering the way cancer patients were treated throughout the National Health Service was overwhelming and called for integrated care. "These relaxation and imagery techniques are complementary to standard and surgical treatment, not an alternative," he said. "The study provided strong evidence that for some patients relaxation and imagery have a very beneficial effect on quality of life."

Cancer experts welcomed the findings and said it could lead to improved survival rates, but said that cancer sufferers should not feel guilty if they get depressed and warned against false hopes.

Professor Walker and colleagues from the University of Aberdeen, studied 80 women, aged 30 to 75, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. All the women received standard medical care and went through surgical treatment, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Half of the group were taught how to use two relaxation techniques. The first involved progressive muscular relaxation, involving people tensing up individual muscles in turn and releasing them, and the second involved guided imagery, where they were taught how to visualise their body's defences overcoming the cancer cells.

"They were shown 10 cartoons, one which depicted a soldier with a bayonet attacking a cluster of cancer cells," he said. However, the women were encouraged to create their own images, and they turned out to be very creative. "One used a brush and shovel," he said.

Throughout the trial, regular blood samples were taken from both groups.

"In terms of the host defences, women who used the relaxation techniques had higher numbers and percentages of mature T-cells, activated T-cells and cells carrying T-cell receptors," he said. These are important for helping the body to attack the malignant disease.

The team also found that at the end of the 37-week study, during which the women were given the drug tamoxifen, they had higher levels of lymphokines, which are activated killer cells. "These are important for preventing the disease from spreading," he said.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, which funded the study, said that the work should not be allowed to raise false hopes. "But it is an interesting finding, and is the first time such an effect has been seen. The question is could these effects be manipulated or exaggerated to see if there might be an clinical benefit. That might be a worthwhile avenue to pursue."

Delyth Morgan of Breakthrough Breast Cancer said: "It is very important that research like this is undertaken because people with cancer are very vulnerable to unsubstantiated claims of wonder cures.

"Research like this is important because it enables complementary medicines to be properly assessed."