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Complementary and Alternative Treatments for Breast Cancer

Nearly four out of every 10 Americans use some form of complementary and alternative medicine -- CAM -- to address a concern with their health. When megadose vitamins and healing prayer are included, the number jumps to more than six out of every 10. Is it possible that some form of CAM can be beneficial in the treatment of breast cancer? For example, what about acupuncture or tai chi? Can they add anything as a supplement to standard medical care?

Why would someone consider complementary treatment for breast cancer?

Most women diagnosed with breast cancer want to do everything they can to regain their health. As part of that, they may try one or more CAM approaches to complement their doctor's care.

Complementary treatment can help some women lessen the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Some employ it to help reduce the stress of treatment. Complementary treatment also helps women with breast cancer feel empowered. That way they can practice positive self-care rather than relying solely on doctors for their health and well-being.

What is complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM?

The type of treatment you receive for a medical problem typically fits into one of three categories:

  • Standard care is also called "traditional" or "conventional" care. It refers to typical Western medical care. For breast cancer, that would include chemotherapy, endocrine therapy, radiation, and surgery.
  • Complementary treatment refers to any type of care that you use along with standard care.
  • Alternative treatment refers to care that you use to replace standard care as an alternative to the Western medical approach.

Many alternative treatments have been used worldwide for centuries. These treatments, though, haven't gone through the rigorous testing that's part of Western medicine's research process. Many complementary treatments may hold great value. But there is a lack of conclusive research regarding their risks, benefits, and side effects. And the same is true about how they might interact with standard care.

But research into CAM is flourishing. That means you can expect to see complementary therapies becoming part of a health care provider's arsenal of treatment options. As that happens, more and more doctors will recommended them to patients.

How are alternative and complementary treatments developed?

Many alternative and complementary treatments originated in alternative medical systems. These systems have completely different ways of understanding the human body, disease, and healing. As a result, they differ, sometimes significantly, from the Western medical model.

Most complementary and alternative treatments are forms of holistic medicine. That means they seek to restore health and balance to the "whole person" -- not just the body. They focus on your mind, emotions, and spirit, too.

Alternative medical systems include:

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which uses acupuncture, tai chi, qigong, herbs, and massage, seeks to unblock internal lines of energy, called meridians. These are believed to run through the body to balance its yin and yang forces.
  • Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient system from India that's based on three doshas or mind/body types. It seeks to harmonize mind, body, and spirit through foods, meditation, and massage.
  • Naturopathy and homeopathy use herbs, botanicals, and other natural products to help the body heal itself.
  • Indigenous healing methods have their origin in such practices as those of Native American, Hawaiian, or South American peoples. Each system has its own beliefs about the cause of disease and healing.

Individual complementary treatments -- such as acupuncture -- can be researched with Western scientific protocol. Entire alternative systems, though, cannot.

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