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Complementary and Alternative Treatments for Breast Cancer

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.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is one of the better-researched complementary treatments for cancer. A 2008 study showed that acupuncture relieved the hot flashes caused by the anti-cancer drug tamoxifen by 50% in women with breast cancer. Other benefits may include decreased vomiting, pain, and fatigue.

Precautions: Women with lymph nodes removed under one arm shouldn't have acupuncture needles inserted into that arm. That's because there is a risk of swelling and excess fluid, a condition called lymphedema. Also, women with severely weakened immune systems are at higher risk of infection and should talk to their doctor before undergoing acupuncture.

What are tai chi and qigong?

Many CAM therapies are based on the idea that a natural, vital "bioenergy" exists. This energy is thought to cause health and healing. Disease occurs, then, when this energy is blocked or weakened. Tai chi (pronounced tie-chee) and qigong (pronounced chee-gung) are both from China. They are based on manipulating this biofield energy through gentle movement, a focus on breathing, and meditation.

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