Last updated: May 19, 2008
Acpuncture may help with pain, nausea, fatigue, hot flashes, and neuropathy.
More breast cancer patients than ever are turning to complementary therapies (also called integrative or alternative medicine), ranging from dietary changes and acupuncture to massage and guided imagery techniques. More than 80% of cancer patients overall have tried it, by one count, whether to supplement their prescribed cancer treatment or to ease the side effects of treatment or the symptoms of the disease itself.

The benefits vary widely and few are backed by solid science (established Eastern medicine treatments have track records, of course, though not always specific to breast cancer). But for many cancer sufferers, a psychological benefit is clear. "Integrative medicine allows women to take a bit of control over their care and feel they have some control over what's going on in their bodies when they can't control chemo or radiation," says Janine E. Gauthier, PhD, director of clinical services at the cancer integrative medicine program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Look before you leap
Often, it takes digging and some trial and error before a woman finds an approach that works for her. Be sure to use common sense as you evaluate a potential therapy—and a potential therapist—cautions Gauthier. "Especially when patients are diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer, it can make them quite vulnerable to a host of charlatans that will offer everything under the sun and tell them they can cure their cancer."

Also, whatever treatments you opt to try, be sure to fill your doctor in: Your medical oncologist and breast surgeon in particular need to know what you're doing or taking, in case it interferes with the treatment they're prescribing for you. According to one 2005 survey, 75% of cancer patients who used complementary and alternative medicine didn't tell their physicians.

Here's a quick look at some of the most common therapies:

1. Nutrition
One of the questions breast cancer patients tend to ask their doctors first is whether they should start eating differently. Indeed, "Diet plays a huge role in managing symptoms," confirms Mansi V. Shah, RD, clinical dietitian at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

But food is also key because you want to stay as strong as you can to support your treatment in fighting the cancer itself. Says Shah, "Make sure that you're well nourished and maintain lean body mass so you can complete chemotherapy and have fairly stable immunity."

A good diet now should include all the usual suspects—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes—and also plenty of lean protein, such as turkey, chicken, and fish. "Cancer is a high-energy-utilizing disease, and if you have nausea and vomiting with chemotherapy, too, you may have unintentional weight loss," Shah explains.

2. Supplements and herbs
Since the U.S. government doesn't regulate supplements, few doctors will recommend anything more than a daily multivitamin, plus perhaps an iron supplement if you're anemic. But that doesn't stop many women from doing their own research and trying a wide variety of herbs and supplements.

3. Acupuncture
Regular needling sessions have also been shown to be helpful in relieving pain, says Roy O. Elam, MD, medical director of the Vanderbilt Center for Integrative Health in Nashville. And acupuncture may help with nausea, fatigue, hot flashes, and neuropathy.

4. Massage
If your treatment is at a cancer or breast center with an integrative medicine program (more of these are cropping up all over), chances are good that massage is on the menu. "Some people have been really frozen up by the experience of having cancer and going through an operation, so they desperately need someone to put hands on them to reconnect with their bodies," says Dr. Elam.

A 2005 study found that breast cancer patients who got either a massage or did a progressive muscle relaxation exercise for 30 minutes three times a week for five weeks felt less depressed and angry and had more energy; they also had better immunity. After a mastectomy, regular rubdowns from a therapist trained in lymphatic drainage may cut your chances of one of the more serious side effects of the surgery: lymphedema. But if you're at risk for blood clots, your doctor is likely to rule out massages.

5. Stress reduction and visualization
"Under stress, we all experience the fight-or-flight response, which releases chemicals into your system, and muscles get stressed and tight," explains Gauthier. "But if you learn techniques for turning on the relaxation response, you can turn off that stress response." The result is that you may have less pain, and you'll avoid the chronic stress that depletes immunity.

"We can't say that stress causes cancer, but we do have data that says long-term stress can impair the immune system's functioning," she adds. For guided imagery or visualization, Gauthier says it works best to use images that are the most motivating for you: "If a patient is using it for relaxation, they can just see themselves relaxing, or they can see their tissues healthy and pink and back to normal, or they can see Pac-Man going through and eating up the cancer cells."

6. Yoga
Exercise is itself therapeutic and, like good nutrition, should be a staple of any treatment regimen. But yoga, with its inherent mind-body focus, may be especially useful for cancer patients.

One small study of lymphoma patients found that those who did a gentle form of yoga that emphasizes visualization and meditation slept better; while undergoing treatment in another trial, breast cancer patients receiving radiation who took a yoga class twice a week said they felt better after just one week.