CAM Therapy As an Alternative Breast Cancer Treatment

Conventional treatment for breast cancer can include one or a combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or other targeted therapies. Depending on the type of cancer and stage of diagnosis, some treatments may involve rather invasive surgeries to remove large tumors.

Other systemic treatments (such as drugs that affect the entire body) can cause unpleasant and lasting side effects that decrease a person’s quality of life. That’s why many people may consider alternative, gentler, or natural treatment, known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Conventional Treatment

Standard or conventional treatment is a system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (such as nurses, pharmacists, and therapists) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, or surgery. It is also called mainstream medicine, orthodox medicine, or Western medicine.

CAM for Breast Cancer

CAM is increasingly common and popular, especially among breast cancer patients. It is estimated to be used by 48% to 70% of breast cancer patients in the United States.

Alternative vs. Complementary Medicine

Alternative medicine is used instead of standard medical treatment. Complementary medicine is used along with standard medical treatment but is not considered by itself to be standard treatment.

CAM is the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard medical care. CAM may be used for:

  • Alleviating side effects of cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain, and fatigue
  • Reducing cancer and cancer treatment-related stress
  • Feeling empowered that they are doing something to help with their own care
  • Attempting to treat or cure their cancer

Assessing Risk

While CAM treatments can help a cancer patient, either physically, mentally, or emotionally, there are some risks. Research on CAM for breast cancer is still developing, and there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the effectiveness of these integrative therapies.

It is important to follow the guidance of your trusted medical team about any and all healthcare approaches you are considering as part of your treatment.

Considerations When Choosing a CAM Therapy Approach

When choosing a CAM therapy, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health suggests that you:

  • Find out what reliable scientific studies have been done on its safety and effectiveness
  • Discuss the information with your healthcare providers before making a decision
  • Choose a complementary health practitioner (e.g., acupuncturist) as carefully as you would choose a conventional healthcare provider
  • Find out about potential side affects or interactions with medications before using any dietary supplement or herbal product
  • Not use CAM therapy to postpone seeing your doctor about your health condition
  • Tell all your healthcare providers about all the health approaches you plan to use to help ensure coordinated and safe care

This article offers information on recent research and results of preclinical or clinical trials on the most common CAM treatments for breast cancer patients.

Mind-Body Therapies

Mind-body therapies combine mental focus, breathing, and body movements to relax the body and mind. These include meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, yoga, tai chi and qigong, imagery, and creative outlets, such as art, dance, or music.

Senior women taking dance lessons

SDI Productions / Getty Images

Yoga

Yoga is an ancient Indian, non-religious mind-body approach with components of meditation, mindfulness, breathing, and activities and postures.

Yoga is the most recommended mind-body therapy to improve quality of life for breast cancer patients. Yoga’s benefits for breast cancer patients include reducing anxiety, depression, fear, and fatigue related to cancer, and improving sleep.

Meditation

Meditation comes in many styles, but all practice self-observation of mental activity, attention and focus training, and cultivating an attitude that focuses on process as opposed to content.

Meditation is recommended by the Society for Integrative Oncology as supportive care to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

Art, Dance, and Music Therapy

Art therapy uses art as a form of emotional support that helps patients diagnosed with cancer to process and cope with difficult feelings, thoughts, and challenges related to their diagnosis and treatment. This includes creating art, viewing it, and talking about it.

Music therapy uses music to promote healing and enhance quality of life. It may include interactive music therapy techniques (instrumental improvisation, singing) as well as receptive music therapy techniques (listening to recorded or live music).

Dance therapy uses movement to improve physical and mental well-being. For breast cancer survivors, dance therapy may help regain a range of motion; boost energy; heal and thrive, both physically and emotionally; and increase feelings of grace and femininity.

Benefits of these therapies for patients with breast cancer include:

  • Ease stress and fear related to cancer or cancer treatment
  • Promote relaxation by lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate
  • Reduce anxiety, depression, pain, and fatigue
  • Help develop positive body image and improve self-esteem
  • Reduce body tension
  • Ease isolation
  • Encourage a sense of well-being

Creative outlets like art, dance, and music therapy are all types of mind-body therapy that are not cures for cancer, but are designed to improve cancer patients’ psychological well-being. These are thought to increase the body’s ability to overcome cancer and prolong survival.

Biologically Based Practices

Biologically based practices make use of things found in nature, such as vitamins, dietary supplements, enzymes, herbs and spices, and special foods, teas, and diets. Over a third of adults with cancer in the United States may use some form of CAM medical products.

Over the shoulder view of a person browsing through medical products and reading the label on a bottle of medicine in front of the shelves in a pharmacy

d3sign / Getty Images

Antioxidant Dietary Supplements

Antioxidants protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, which may play a part in cancer. They are found naturally in fruits and vegetables, as well as manmade substances like dietary supplements. Common antioxidants include:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Flavonoids
  • Beta-carotene
  • Glutathione

Many believe that antioxidant dietary supplements may help protect and repair healthy cells during cancer treatment. However, there is no evidence that these dietary supplements are safe and effective in managing breast cancer treatment or symptoms.

In fact, studies showed that using antioxidant supplements increased the risk of death during breast cancer treatment and increased the risk of cancer returning after treatment.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy uses essential oils from plants to improve physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. This is often done by inhaling the oils or applying them to the skin.

One study showed that inhaling ginger essential oil for breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy somewhat decreased acute nausea, but did not lessen vomiting or chronic nausea.

Cannabis and Cannabinoids

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, is a plant the contains compounds called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are chemicals that affect the central nervous system and immune system.

Active cannabinoids include delta-9-THC and cannabidiol (CBD), which have been studied for pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, and loss of appetite caused by cancer or the side affects of cancer treatment.

While the Food and Drug Administration has not approved cannabis or cannabinoids for use as a cancer treatment, emerging preclinical research suggests that cannabinoids may slow the progression of breast cancer tumors, angiogenesis (growth of blood vessels), and metastasis (spread).

Medicinal Mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms are mushrooms used as medicine to boost immune function, slow the growth of tumors, or kill tumor cells. More than 100 types of mushrooms are used to treat cancer. Many of these are approved as cancer treatments in China and Japan and have been safely used for many years alone or with conventional therapies.

The most common medicinal mushrooms are:

  • Ganoderma lucidum (reishi)
  • Trametes versicolor or Coriolus versicolor (turkey tail)
  • Lentinus edodes (shiitake)
  • Grifola frondosa (maitake)

In a phase I clinical trial, a product made with turkey tail was shown to increase cancer-fighting cells in the immune system of cancer patients, post-conventional therapy.

Manipulative and Body-Based Practices

These CAM therapies are based on physically working parts of the body, such as massage, chiropractic therapy, and reflexology.

Massage therapy is widely studied in cancer care to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, cancer pain, and fatigue. It is used by approximately 11.2% of breast cancer patients.

A systematic review of massage therapy for breast cancer concluded that few rigorous clinical studies have been conducted on its effectiveness in breast cancer care. However, it may be useful at treating symptoms of breast cancer, such as reducing the risk of depression and perceived stress.

Whole Medical Systems

Whole medical systems are systems of beliefs that have evolved over time in different cultures. These include Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine (including acupuncture), homeopathy, and naturopathic medicine.

Acupuncture, part of traditional Chinese medicine, is the application of needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments on skin to control symptoms, including, pain, nausea, and vomiting.

The National Institutes of Health began studying acupuncture for cancer patients in 1997 for cancer and cancer-treatment symptoms. There is strong evidence that acupuncture can be used to relieve nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.

A 2016 clinical trial showed that breast cancer patients had less intense and less frequent nausea and vomiting compared to those who did not receive acupuncture.

Clinical Evidence for CAM Is Limited

While CAM therapies are becoming increasingly popular, it’s important to recognize the limited clinical evidence that these alternative therapies are as effective as conventional treatment. In a 10-year study, CAM therapy was shown to be associated with disease progression and increased risk of reoccurrence and death when conventional treatment, such as surgery, is delayed or refused.

A Word From Verywell

You may want to consider CAM treatment to help alleviate stress and anxiety or provide much-needed relief for symptoms related to breast cancer and treatment, but it’s important to consult with all your healthcare providers—both conventional and alternative—prior to beginning any CAM therapies.

Some alternative treatments have limited clinical research to prove they are beneficial. In fact, some natural remedies may even interfere or cause more harm when combined with standard treatment. Your healthcare provider can ensure any CAM therapies are complementary to your treatment plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which CAM therapy is the most researched?

    The most studied CAM therapies include mind-body therapies, biologically based practices, manipulative and body-based practices, and whole medical systems.

  • What is the survival rate of breast cancer without chemotherapy?

    A 2018 study found that about 70% of women with the most common type of early stage breast cancer likely do not need chemotherapy following surgery. Five years after treatment, the survival rate of the women who received chemotherapy and those who did not were very similar (98.1% and 98.0%, respectively).

  • Can CAM therapy help with the side effects of chemotherapy?

    Research on the potential benefits of CAM therapy is still quite limited, but some studies suggest that some remedies may be helpful in preventing or treating side effects.

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