Specific Type of Counseling Can Help Ease Hot Flashes

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A small study has found that a type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy can help ease hot flashes that often come during and after breast cancer treatment. The results were published in the Feb. 15, 2012 online issue of The Lancet Oncology.

Breast cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, ovarian shutdown with medicine, and surgically removing the ovaries all can cause hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms that can be just bothersome or quite severe. Doctors call side effects such as hot flashes and night sweats vasomotor symptoms.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help ease hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms, but women diagnosed with breast cancer shouldn't take HRT because it could promote the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer cells. Other medicines, such as antidepressants and sleep aids, can offer some relief for some women.

Researchers have studied the potential of many complementary and holistic treatments -- acupuncture and yoga, for example -- to help ease hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. Still, most of the studies are small, like this one. Results are mixed: Some have shown that some complementary and holistic treatments may help ease hot flashes in some people.

All the 96 women in this study had been treated for early-stage breast cancer and were having at least 10 episodes of night sweats or hot flashes each week when they agreed to be in the study. Besides getting the standard recommendations for treatment recovery, half the women also got 90-minute cognitive behavioral therapy sessions once per week for 6 weeks. The cognitive behavioral therapy sessions taught the women about hot flash triggers as well as relaxation techniques, breathing control, and how to get better sleep. The other women got only the standard breast cancer treatment recovery recommendations. As the study went on, the women reported on the frequency and severity of any hot flashes, as well as how they felt more generally.

Both groups of women reported less severe hot flashes during the study, but the decrease was much greater in women who got cognitive behavioral therapy. The benefits of cognitive therapy also lasted long after the final therapy session:

  • After 3 weeks, hot flash severity scores in women who got cognitive therapy were 46% lower than at the study's start compared to 19% lower in women who didn't get cognitive therapy.
  • After 6 months, hot flash severity scores in women who got cognitive therapy were 52% lower than at the study's start compared to 25% lower in women who didn't get cognitive therapy.

The frequency of hot flashes stayed about the same in both groups of women. This means that the cognitive therapy sessions helped women better manage the hot flashes instead of making hot flashes less likely.

Besides less severe hot flashes, women who got cognitive therapy were more likely to report better overall health, better emotional health, fewer sleep problems, and better memory and concentration after 6 months compared to women who didn't get cognitive therapy.

For some women, complementary and holistic treatments may help ease hot flashes that can come with menopause and breast cancer treatment. For other women, these therapies combined with conventional medicine may offer a more integrated approach to relief.

In the Breastcancer.org Complementary and Holistic Medicine pages, you can learn about 16 therapies, including guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation. You'll learn about:

  • what to expect
  • how to find a qualified practitioner
  • important things to consider before trying a technique

If you're having treatment-related hot flashes, you also might want to visit the All About Hot Flashes page to learn more about hot flashes, how to avoid them, and how to manage them.

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