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Complementary and Alternative Treatments for Breast Cancer

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.

In China, doctors regularly prescribe qigong for cancer. It's used both as an adjunct to chemotherapy and radiation and as a primary therapy for inoperable, advanced cancer. More U.S. hospitals are offering tai chi as a complement to standard care. That's because of the increase in self-esteem, quality of life, and sense of well-being it brings.

Precautions: Because tai chi and qigong are so gentle, they carry few risks. You should, however, talk with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.

What is Reiki?

Another form of energy medicine for breast cancer is Reiki (pronounced ray-key), a practice that comes from Japan. Its practitioners manipulate bioenergy by passing their hands over a patient's body. While most women who try Reiki report feelings of relaxation and reduced pain, no well-designed research has yet proved its benefits or shown how it works.

Is yoga beneficial for breast cancer?

Yoga is increasingly being studied as a complementary treatment for breast cancer. It has been shown to increase energy, vitality, and quality of life. Women with breast cancer -- especially after surgery -- should look for a gentle style of yoga. For example, hatha and restorative yoga may be good choices. These styles of yoga focus more on breathing, gentle movement, and relaxation.

Precautions: More athletic styles of yoga, such as power yoga, work the upper body. These may not be appropriate for some women, depending on their type of cancer treatment. Women with lymph nodes removed under one arm are at risk of swelling and excess fluid in that arm. This is a condition called lymphedema. Always check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program, including yoga.

Can herbs, supplements, and botanicals provide benefit for breast cancer?

The antioxidants most studied to prevent or treat cancer are vitamins C and E and co-enzyme Q10. Data from evidence-based research show contradictory results.

Precautions: Talk with your doctor before taking any vitamin, mineral, or herbal supplements -- especially in high doses. This includes garlic capsules, ginseng, ginkgo, soy, and valerian. The various products can boost or limit the effects of cancer treatment. St. John's wort, which is used for depression, can block certain anticancer drugs. High doses of vitamin C, an antioxidant, can change the way chemotherapy and radiation affect your body. Also, the safety, efficacy, and manufacture of dietary supplements aren't regulated as strictly as pharmaceutical drugs are.

WebMD Medical Reference

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