Complementary and Integrative Medicine


Many women and their loved ones are strongly attracted to complementary medicine. These types of treatments seem to be more natural, gentle, and supportive and appear to have fewer side effects than most conventional therapies. Plus, many people feel deeply disappointed by medical therapies they have tried, because they failed to prevent the cancer from coming back.

In your search for new treatments, you might be looking for something that's intended to help your whole being heal, rather than only treating the cancer. Many women who have been through a great deal of cancer testing and treatment feel that, although their doctors may do a great job of treating the cancer, they don't have the time or expertise to help with their mental and emotional needs.

Holistic or complementary medicine can make a difference in your treatment and in your feelings about wellness and illness. These therapies see the mind, spirit, and body as partners in healing and well-being. And when the mind, spirit, and body are not functioning well together, they can also be partners contributing to "dis-ease."

Complementary medicine tries to promote health or wellness with a number of aids, including:

  • herbs
  • acupuncture
  • massage
  • visualization
  • hypnosis
  • meditation/relaxation therapy
  • yoga
  • vitamins
  • homeopathy

No scientific evidence has shown that any of these therapies effectively treat breast cancer. But researchers are testing some now to see if they might help with healing from cancer and the effects of anti-cancer treatment. Studies have shown that relaxation therapy or acupuncture can ease pain. And even if complementary medicine does not lengthen your life, it may improve your QUALITY of life while you have recurrent or metastatic breast cancer.

Some doctors like to combine both complementary and standard treatments, drawing on the strengths of each. This is often called "integrative medicine."

You may also hear it called "alternative medicine." Remember that this does not mean it should be used "instead of" your regular treatment, but rather, as a secondary treatment.

Important things to consider before you try these therapies

You should inform your physician of any complementary medicines you are taking. Your doctor needs to look out for interactions between your cancer treatment and the complementary cancer treatment. Some complementary medicines may be harmful if taken at the same time as standard treatments for breast cancer. For example:

  • Calcium pills may make the level of calcium in your blood too high if you have cancer in your bones.
  • Vitamin C pills may increase the side effects of the chemotherapy drug methotrexate.
  • Iron pills may give your body too much iron and are not advised for people who are having blood transfusions.

Many doctors who trained in U.S. medical schools are not familiar with the complementary therapies you are taking or are considering taking. This does not mean that your doctor "disapproves" of your interest in complementary therapies. For some tips on having a conversation with your doctor about complementary therapies, visit the Talking to Your Doctor About Complementary Medicine page.

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