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How CAM treatments can help with breast cancer

If you have breast cancer, you may want to explore different treatment methods to supplement traditional medicine. Options include acupuncture, detoxification diets, traditional Chinese medicine, and antioxidants, among other alternatives. These are known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Many people use CAM treatments to help ease side effects, relieve pain, and improve their quality of life. Although some CAM treatments are effective, not all are safe. It’s important to keep in mind these are complementary remedies and shouldn’t be used in place of your doctor-approved treatment plan.

A healthy diet is an important part of cancer treatment. You should eat well whether you’re using traditional methods or CAM.

However, some people with breast cancer may start on a special diet in place of taking anticancer drugs.

You should avoid foods that are:

  • high-fat
  • salt-cured
  • smoked
  • pickled

You should also double up on fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods.

Before switching up your diet, talk with your doctor. They can work with you to come up with a nutrition plan that can help you build strength and maintain your body’s natural defenses.

Antioxidants lower your risk of cancer by helping protect your body from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that can harm cells.

Certain grains, fruits, and vegetables are rich with dietary antioxidants, including:

  • beta carotene
  • lycopene
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin E

These antioxidants may be found in the following foods:

  • goji berries
  • wild blueberries
  • dark chocolate
  • pecans
  • kidney beans

They’re also available through dietary supplements. However, research is mixed on whether antioxidant supplements are safe to use during cancer treatment.

Dietary supplements may:

  • interact with prescription drugs
  • contain contaminated synthetic prescription drugs
  • contain unknown contaminants

This can result in a number of unexpected complications. People with breast cancer should use them with caution.

If you want to try antioxidant supplements, be sure to talk with your doctor first. They can explain your individual risks and benefits.

Mind-body practices are meant to improve your mind’s positive impact on the rest of your body.

Examples of these practices include:

  • art therapy
  • music therapy
  • aromatherapy
  • meditation
  • yoga
  • labyrinth walking
  • reiki
  • tai chi

Each therapy targets your mind, body, and soul using meditative techniques and creative activities that help enhance your quality of life. Some remedies, such as art therapy and music therapy, are most effective when working with a licensed practitioner.

Research has proven that these types of mind, body, and soul therapies are effective at relieving stress, anxiety, and pain, but they shouldn’t be used in place of a doctor-recommended treatment plan.

Massage therapy is known to boost immunity and ease anxiety, pain, and fatigue. One 2003 study found that in women who had breast cancer, massage therapy helped reduce not only anxiety and pain, but also the need for pain medication.

Another study released around that time found that massage therapy and progressive muscle relaxation helped increase protective white blood cells in women with stage 1 and stage 2 breast cancer.

If you’d like to incorporate massage therapy into your routine, make sure you work with a licensed practitioner who’s trained to avoid or work around sensitive areas affected by traditional treatment.

Acupuncture is a central part of traditional Chinese medicine that may help relieve symptoms of breast cancer and side effects of treatment. Acupuncture requires a practitioner to place sterile, hair-thin needles into acupuncture points — specific points on your skin — then gently move them to stimulate your nervous system.

Research has shown that acupuncture can help:

  • relieve fatigue
  • control hot flashes
  • reduce vomiting
  • reduce pain
  • help decrease nausea

However, it does carry some risks, such as:

  • infection
  • bleeding
  • lymphedema, which is swelling caused by excess fluid, in your arm

Sometimes practitioners incorporate herbal supplements into acupuncture treatment. People undergoing chemotherapy shouldn’t use herbal supplements because they’re known to reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Be sure to talk with your practitioner about your needs and what techniques they may use for you.

Biofeedback training is used to treat the side effects of chemotherapy. During biofeedback, you’re hooked up to electrical sensors that monitor subtle changes in your body.

This method may help you gain conscious power over your body so that you can control actions that are normally autonomic, or involuntary. These functions include:

  • muscle tension
  • heart rate
  • blood pressure

Your doctor will determine which type of biofeedback technique is best to treat your symptoms.

According to the Mayo Clinic, Resperate is the only biofeedback device approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. So be careful of machines marketed for at-home use. Some may be fraudulent and can cause damage.

Learn more: Biofeedback »

There are five standard types of care used to treat breast cancer:

  • surgery
  • radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy
  • hormone therapy
  • targeted therapy

Surgery and radiation therapy are considered local therapies because they treat cancer cells without affecting the rest of your body. Local therapies are most effective in the earlier stages of breast cancer.

Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy are known as systemic therapies. Systemic therapies use drugs to treat breast cancer. Those drugs enter your bloodstream by either oral use or injection and reach tumors that have spread throughout your body. Systemic therapies are more effective in advanced stages of breast cancer.

Some breast cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, may cause side effects that last months or even years after therapy has ended. Some treatment plans may require multiple remedies at once, or one after the other.

The stage and type of breast cancer will determine the type of treatment plan you’re on. Advanced stages of breast cancer typically require a combination of local and systemic therapies. Early on, localized or operable breast cancer may only require surgery. However, your doctor may want you on postoperative treatment to reduce the chances of tumors reappearing.

Make sure you talk with your doctor before you begin any of these alternative treatments. Your doctor can tell you if complementary or alternative therapies will be effective for the stage of your breast cancer, and steer you away from fraudulent products.

They can also tell you what research is available on different CAM treatments, what is and isn’t known about them, and whether they’re safe. Your doctor can also write you a referral or a recommendation for an appropriate CAM treatment. Once you have all the information, you can make a truly informed decision.

CAM treatments shouldn’t be used in place of your doctor-recommended treatment plan. CAM treatments aren’t considered an effective alternative to first-line treatment for breast cancer.

Although many major insurers cover CAM treatment, some may not. Because of this, there may be a large out-of-pocket cost. You should make sure to investigate the type of CAM treatments you’re interested in and whether they’re covered before committing your time, money, and energy.