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 therapyand a potential therapistcautions 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.