If you have breast cancer, you’ll want to do everything you can to regain your health. As part of that, you may try complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) along with medical treatment.
Complementary and alternative treatments help some women lessen the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Some use CAM to help lessen the stress of treatment. Complementary treatments can also help you feel empowered. People may find benefit in practicing positive self-care rather than relying solely on doctors for their health and well-being.
What is complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM?
Treatment for medical problems typically fits into one of three categories:
Standard care is also called "traditional" or "conventional" care. It refers to typical Western medicine. For breast cancer, that includes chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation, and surgery.
Complementary treatment refers to any type of care that you use along with standard care.
Many complementary treatments may hold great value. But there’s often a lack of research regarding their risks, benefits, side effects, and how they might interact with standard care.
But research into CAM is growing. Complementary therapies are becoming part of doctors' treatment options. And more and more doctors are recommending them to patients.
Alternative treatment refers to care that you use to replace standard care as an alternative to the Western medical approach.
Alternative treatments have been used worldwide for centuries. But like complementary treatments, they haven't gone through rigorous testing.
How are complementary and alternative treatments developed?
Many of these therapies have roots in alternative medical systems. These systems have different ways of understanding the human body, disease, and healing. As a result, they differ, sometimes significantly, from Western medicine.
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, which uses acupuncture, tai chi, qigong, herbs, and massage to unblock internal lines of energy that are believed to run through the body.
- Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient system from India. It seeks to harmonize mind, body, and spirit through foods, meditation, and massage.
- Naturopathy and homeopathy, which use herbs, botanicals, and other natural products to help the body heal itself.
- Indigenous healing methods, which have origins in the practices of Native American, Hawaiian, or South American peoples. Each system has its own beliefs about the cause of disease and healing.
What is acupuncture?
Some complementary treatments for cancer, such as acupuncture, have been researched. A small study shows that acupuncture may help relieve hot flashes caused by some breast cancer treatments. Yoga, massage, and meditation have also been shown to decrease these hot flashes. Other benefits of acupuncture may include less 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, and disease happens when it’s blocked or weakened.
Tai chi and qigong are both from China and are based on manipulating energy through gentle movement, a focus on breathing, and meditation.
In China, doctors regularly prescribe qigong for cancer. It's used as an addition to chemotherapy and radiation, and as a primary treatment for people with inoperable, advanced cancer.
More U.S. hospitals are offering tai chi as a complement to standard care. It can bring an increase in self-esteem, an improvement in quality of life, and a sense of well-being.
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 that is sometimes used in the treatment of breast cancer is reiki, a practice that comes from Japan. Practitioners pass their hands over a person's body to manipulate bioenergy. Most women who try reiki report feelings of relaxation and reduced pain, but no research has yet proved its benefits or shown how it works.
Can yoga help?
Yoga is being studied as a complementary treatment for breast cancer. It’s 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 focus more on breathing, gentle movement, and relaxation.
Precautions: More athletic styles of yoga, such as power yoga, work the upper body. Depending on the type of treatment, these may not be good for some women. If you’ve had lymph nodes removed under one arm, there may be a risk of lymphedema. Always check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program, including yoga.
Can herbs, supplements, and botanicals help with breast cancer?
Antioxidants that have been studied to prevent or treat cancer include vitamins C and E and co-enzyme Q10. Studies have not shown that they are helpful.
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. Some of these supplements can affect cancer treatment. For example, St. John's wort, which is used for depression, can block certain cancer drugs. High doses of vitamin C, an antioxidant, can change the way chemotherapy and radiation affect your body.
Also, the safety, effectiveness, and manufacture of dietary supplements aren't regulated as strictly as prescription medications.
How might meditation, journaling, music therapy, and support groups help a woman with breast cancer?
Many complementary treatments are based on the idea that what you think, feel, and believe impact on your health. Meditation, journaling, music or art therapy, guided imagery, and joining a breast cancer support group all help you relax. They make you feel less alone and help create a positive mental and physical state. Many women also use healing prayers and affirmations -- perhaps the most popular form of mind-body medicine.
Talk with your doctor before trying alternative or complementary medicine for breast cancer.
Before using any complementary or alternative treatments for breast cancer, you need to become an informed patient. Ask your doctor these basic questions:
- What are the proven benefits of this complementary treatment?
- What are the "anecdotal" benefits reported by patients but not officially studied, such as less stress or better sleep?
- What are the risks, if any?
- Can this form of complementary treatment interfere with my standard breast cancer care?
Most doctors will be glad you're talking openly about your interest in a complementary treatment rather than trying it without their knowledge. Increasingly, Western medical doctors are becoming good sources of information and can give referrals to local CAM practitioners they trust.