Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Breast Cancer

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, you may consider exploring different treatment methods to supplement traditional medical treatments. Conventional treatments for breast cancer include: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are terms used to describe various products, practices, and systems that are not considered mainstream medicine that use your own body, mind, or things found in nature. “Alternative” methods are used in place of proven medical treatments. “Complementary” refers to methods used to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life in conjunction with medical treatment. Because complementary medicine can be combined or integrated with traditional medical treatment, it is also referred to as “integrative medicine.” Complementary medicine is not alternative medicine

A number of studies have found that up to 80% of breast cancer survivors have used at least one complementary technique. Complementary medicine, when used along with standard treatment, can reduce symptoms or improve physical or psychological health.

Common CAM treatments to discuss with your doctor include:

Special diet: A healthy diet is an important part of cancer treatment, whether you are using traditional methods or CAM. Special diets avoid foods that are high-fat, salt-cured, smoked, and pickled. Diets should also include increased fruit, vegetable, and plant-based intake. Before making any major changes to your diet, work with your doctor to create a nutrition plan that works best for your body and cancer.

Antioxidant supplements: Antioxidants can lower your risk of cancer by protecting your body from free radicals. Dietary antioxidants include beta carotene, lycopene, and vitamins A, C, and E. These antioxidants are commonly found in goji berries, wild blueberries, dark chocolate, pecans, and kidney beans, or in dietary supplements. However, dietary supplements should be discussed with your doctor, as they may interact with cancer drugs.

Mind-body therapies: Mind-body practices can improve quality of life and are effective at relieving stress, anxiety, and pain. Examples of commonly used meditative and creative activities include art therapy, music therapy, reiki, yoga, tai chi, meditation, labyrinth walking, and aromatherapy.

Massage Therapy: Massage therapy has been found to ease anxiety, pain, and fatigue and can boost immunity. A clinical study from 2003 found that massage therapy reduced the need for pain medication and decreased anxiety levels in breast cancer patients. Another study discovered a link between massage therapy and enhanced dopamine, serotonin, and NK cell number and lymphocytes in women with stage 1 and 2 breast cancer. If you are interested in incorporating massage therapy into your treatment plan, make sure to work with a licensed practitioner who has experience with breast cancer patients.

Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a central practice of Chinese medicine that is used to relieve various symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, and pain. Acupuncture involves a practitioner stimulating your nervous system by placing sterile, hair-thin needles into acupuncture points. Always consult your doctor before pursuing acupuncture, as it does carry risks of infection, bleeding, and lymphedema and some of the herbal supplements incorporated into acupuncture treatment may negatively interact with chemotherapy. 

Only a few examples of CAM therapies are discussed in this article, but more detailed information on a wide range of popular therapies can be found here.

Safety is a major concern with complementary therapies and patients who choose to forgo traditional medicine may be putting themselves at risk. The American Cancer Society strongly urges patients to discuss the use of alternative and complementary therapies with their health care team and does not advise patients to use CAM to treat cancer itself. Few complementary therapies have been studied with the same scientific rigor as standard medicine. Use caution with therapies that claim to be “miracle curses,” “ancient remedies,” or “secret ingredients.” 

The decision to use complementary or alternative methods is an important one, and it is your decision to make. Consult with your doctor before beginning any alternative or complementary therapies so that you can make a truly informed decision. Your doctor can refer you to research on different CAM treatments and can also recommend appropriate methods. While many of these methods do not pose physical harm, they are nearly all unproven to cure cancer.

Resources

“What Are Complementary and Alternative Methods?” American Cancer Society, March 31, 2015. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/complementary-and-alternative-methods-and-cancer/what-are-cam.html.

“What Are the Risks of Not Using Mainstream Cancer Treatment?,” March 31, 2015. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/complementary-and-alternative-methods-and-cancer/risks-of-not-using-mainstream-treatment.html.

Scaccia, Annamarya. “Alternative Treatments for Breast Cancer: What Works?” Healthline. Healthline Media, August 20, 2018. https://www.healthline.com/health/breast-cancer/alternative-treatments-for-breast-cancer.

“Complementary Therapies – Integrative Therapies.” Susan G. Komen®, August 3, 2019. https://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/ComplementaryTherapiesIntro.html.

“What Is Complementary Medicine.” Breastcancer.org, May 5, 2020. https://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/comp_med/what_is_it.

Robert H. Shmerling, MD. “Alternative Therapies for Cancer.” Harvard Health Blog, January 31, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/alternative-therapies-for-cancer-2019020115888.