Can Complementary Therapies Help Breast Cancer Patients?

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Plastic Surgeon and Breast Reconstruction Specialist Dr. Constance Chen Offers Practical Tips.

Dr. Constance Chen

Complementary therapies may help women with the effects of mainstream medicine and its treatments. With the approval of their doctors, some women have found benefits from therapies such as acupuncture; aromatherapy; exercise, including yoga and tai chi; and meditation and relaxation techniques.

Breast cancer, the most commonly occurring cancer in women, is traditionally treated with a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. In seeking to maximize the benefits of these treatments and minimize their often-debilitating side effects, many women consider adding various complementary therapies to their treatment regimens.

“Complementary therapies may help women with the effects of mainstream medicine and its treatments,” says plastic surgeon and breast specialist Dr. Constance M. Chen. “With the approval of their doctors, some women have found benefits from therapies such as acupuncture; aromatherapy; exercise, including yoga and tai chi; and meditation and relaxation techniques. These are referred to as 'complementary' rather than 'alternative' therapies, since they work in concert with traditional treatments; they don't replace them.”

Safety first
In some women, integrating complementary therapies with standard treatment can help relieve common signs and symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, pain, difficulty sleeping, and stress. Although not all medical professionals are supportive, it may be useful to bring your doctor into your plans before undertaking a complementary regimen. “Standard treatments have been through a rigorous scientific process of testing and clinical trials to determine their safety and effectiveness,” she says. “The same isn't always true of alternative therapies. In particular, some herbal supplements interact with cancer drugs in ways that can make traditional medication less effective. The 'natural' label is no guarantee of safety. The same is true of large doses of some vitamins. Although many traditional doctors are not well educated in alternative therapies, you can try asking your doctor for advice on safety and on the best strategy for you.”

Which therapies are safe and effective?
Acupuncture has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. A practitioner applies hair-thin, sterilized needles to specific points on the skin and moves them gently to stimulate the nervous system. The strongest evidence for acupuncture as an adjunct to cancer treatment has been found in clinical trials that demonstrated effectiveness in reducing the nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy drugs or by anesthesia used in surgery. It has also been found effective in limited studies in reducing pain for some cancer patients and in reducing the hot flashes suffered by women undergoing hormone therapy. There is some evidence that acupuncture may help relieve fatigue and resolve problems sleeping. The FDA has approved the use of acupuncture by licensed practitioners. Many states regulate the practice; you should do your own research to find a certified practitioner.

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants to improve physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Essential oils are extracted from the fragrant part of the plant, which is often found under the surface of leaves, bark, or peel. The fragrance is released when the plant is crushed or a special steam process is used. Essential oils used in aromatherapy include those from geranium, lavender, tea tree, lemon, ginger, cedarwood, bergamot, and Roman chamomile. Each has a different chemical makeup that affects how it smells, how it is absorbed, and how it affects the body. Essential oils are most often inhaled indirectly via a diffuser that distributes the oil in the air. They may also be diluted and massaged into the skin. While studies have shown mixed results, some have shown benefits to cancer patients in instilling a feeling of calm, relieving anxiety, improving sleep, and reducing nausea and pain. A study of breast cancer patients found inhalation of ginger oil to have some effect in reducing acute nausea. Aromatherapy is generally considered safe when used as directed, though the oils can cause an allergic reaction in some women when applied directly to the skin and lavender and tea tree oils have estrogen-like effects that can be detrimental in some cases.

Exercise has been shown to improve outcomes for cancer patients and improve quality of life. It can relieve stress and fatigue and improve sleep. An exercise program should be started slowly, building up gradually to thirty minutes most days of the week. Tai chi is a form of exercise that uses slow, gentle movements and deep breathing. It is generally safe, doesn't require physical strength, and can relieve stress. Yoga comes in many variations, some of which require considerable bending, twisting, and stretching along with deep breathing. It's important to avoid poses that cause discomfort. Many cancer patients find yoga relieves stress and fatigue and improves sleep.

Meditation is a method of deep concentration on a single thought, often combined with deep breathing and relaxation techniques that calm the mind and relax the muscles. Many people who practice meditation do so once or twice a day, often starting with the help of an instructor. These practices are generally credited with relieving anxiety and stress.

“These therapies bring relief to many breast cancer patients,” says Dr. Chen. “You may find benefit from the therapy itself and also from the psychological support and conviction that you are doing everything possible to enhance the success of your treatment and to sustain the best possible quality of life as you heal.”

Constance M. Chen, MD, is a board-certified plastic surgeon with special expertise in the use of innovative natural techniques to optimize medical and cosmetic outcomes for women undergoing breast reconstruction. She is Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery (Plastic Surgery) at Weill Cornell Medical College and Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery (Plastic Surgery) at Tulane University School of Medicine.

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