Integrative Therapies That Can Help Breast Cancer

bald women doing yoga
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Alternative and complementary therapies have become the buzzword in cancer treatment, and many cancer centers now offer these treatments.

It’s important, however, to make a quick distinction when speaking of alternative therapies as used in cancer treatment. As offered, these therapies are considered “integrative” which means they are used alongside conventional treatments for cancer such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

At this time we don’t have any alternative therapies which are effective for treating cancer. Rather, these therapies may play an important role in helping you cope with the symptoms of cancer and cancer treatments, such as pain, fatigue, insomnia, and anxiety.

Ask your oncologist which of these therapies are available at your cancer center, and if she feels any of these could be particularly helpful for you. Let’s take a look at some of the treatments that have been studied for people with cancer.


Yoga has been around for many years but has only recently caught on in the U.S. as both a health practice and a tonic for illness.

Yoga is said to help people center their thoughts and maintain flexibility. For women with breast cancer, the practice of yoga has been linked with a lower level of fatigue, less insomnia, and decreased irritability. Hatha yoga, with its slow gentle movements, may be particularly helpful for women coping with muscle and joint pain related to the aromatase inhibitors.

Yoga may be most helpful in coping with fatigue and muscle aches, along with reducing cortisol levels in the body and in turn, decreasing stress levels, as research has found in metastatic breast cancer patients.

Many people with metastatic cancer find it helpful to engage in “gentle yoga” or attend a class designed for people with cancer or other medical conditions. Of course, there are reasons that yoga may not be recommended, such as for those who are at risk of bone fractures or who should avoid group contact due to a low white blood cell count. Talk to your doctor about any possible risks or precautions before you sign up to try yoga.

Meditation and Prayer

Meditation is primarily a way of calming the mind and focusing. Some people focus on their breathing, some people repeat a mantra, and others choose prayer as a way to silence their mind. Studies on people without cancer have found that meditation may restore a sense of calm and close their minds to the fears of the future.

A few studies have specifically looked at the possible benefits of meditation or prayer for people with cancer. These studies have found that it may lower stress, reduce depression, help ease the pain, and improve concentration and memory in those who are coping with “chemobrain.”

An advantage of meditation and prayer is that there are few possible side effects (although you don’t want to do this while operating heavy machinery). It is also something you can do almost anytime or anywhere.


Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice which has been around for thousands of years. The theory behind acupuncture is that the proper balance of energies in the body is necessary for good health.

Long thin needles are placed along energy pathways in the body (meridians) to restore the proper flow of energy. We’re not sure exactly how the practice works, but the National Institutes of Health has endorsed acupuncture for some medical conditions, and the National Cancer Institute claims there is strong evidence that acupuncture can reduce nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

In addition to reducing nausea, studies evaluating acupuncture for people with cancer have found that it may decrease pain, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy, a symptom which can be terribly annoying for women with metastatic breast cancer.

Researchers have theorized that acupuncture may alter the level of neurotransmitters in the body or increase the release of pain-reducing endorphins, but again, we aren’t really sure how these effects occur.

It’s very important to talk to your oncologist if you are considering chemotherapy. Those who are receiving chemotherapy may be at risk of infection, or increased bleeding related to the needle placement. If your oncologist gives you the go, make sure to find an experienced acupuncturist who has experience in treating people with cancer.

Massage Therapy

Some people find that a massage is just what the doctor ordered for reducing stress and achy muscles. In studies on people with cancer, it has also been found to lower anxiety and possibly reduce pain as well. In combination with dexamethasone and ginger, one study even found that it reduced chemotherapy-associated nausea.

If you are considering massage therapy, however, it is important to talk to your oncologist. Caution is in order if you have any open sores from radiation or tumor metastases or if you have a weakening of your bones due to bone metastases. There is also a small risk, though primarily theoretical, that massaging a tumor could result in the spread.

Music Therapy

One alternative therapy with little-associated risk is music therapy. Though studies have looked at the benefits of music therapy for people with cancer, the beauty is that you can listen to music wherever you happen to be.

If you are looking for some direction in adding music to your integrative approach to cancer, there are now over 30 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers which offer music therapy for people with cancer. It’s thought that music not only helps people ride the emotional roller coaster of cancer but may provide relief for some of the physical symptoms as well.

We may be hearing of more benefits related to the arts in the future due to its ability to to improve mood, decrease stress, pain, anxiety level and enhance relaxation. 

Of course, your choice of music can be important, which you may need to remind your children if they are teens. The best choice is probably the music which brings you the most joy.

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