What people say about complementary medicine
If you have never tried these therapies — or even if you have — it can be helpful to hear what other people say about them.
Some of the people featured in this section were using complementary therapies for years before they were diagnosed with breast cancer. Others were directed to these therapies during conventional medical treatment for cancer.
"I had just started a yoga and meditation class before being diagnosed with DCIS. I had enjoyed it a lot and found it very relaxing, although I was kind of heavy and had trouble getting up and down from the floor. But I had never realized how tense and stressed-out I was, and yoga showed me a way to let go.
"But breast cancer was something I never expected. Well, nobody does, but I just was so healthy and no one in my family had any kind of cancer. I used to wake up in the middle of the night with heart palpitations from some very bad dreams, and then it was hard to get back to sleep.
"I became a really good patient — did everything the doctors said. I took a 6-month leave from my elementary school teaching and got totally caught up in the medical side of my life. But after three lumpectomies and a course of radiation, I realized something very big was missing. I was exhausted when I started yoga again, but I stuck with it because I had a feeling I really needed to be in charge of something. And I was right. I just wish I'd continued these therapies while I was having my regular cancer treatments.
"My doctor never told me not to do yoga — just warned me about how tired I was going to be. But my friend steered me to a school whose teacher had had colon cancer. She really knew what was going on with me. I think it was really helpful to be with someone who understood the mental and emotional side of this disease. She taught me special relaxing postures. Child's Pose is my favorite! Any time the class got too strenuous for me, I'd just go into that position.
"I'm definitely going to continue yoga, and my next plan is to get a weekly massage. I think that doctors do a great job of taking care of the part of you that's sick, but you have to take care of the rest."
Learn more about yoga during and after breast cancer treatment.
"I was 48 when I was found to have invasive breast cancer. By that time, I'd been having acupuncture treatments and massages for about 25 years. I started acupuncture at the hospital where I'd had a skin-sparing mastectomy — and acupuncture became even more valuable after the next operation. A mastectomy is like a manicure compared to a reconstruction! I was in so much pain, on so many painkillers, I couldn't eat — and I had always had a great appetite.
"So at each session the acupuncturist would ask, what do you want to work on today? Sometimes it was range of motion in my shoulder, but mostly, it was to get my hunger back.
"During our sessions, I'd lie down and she'd put on two heat lamps — one at my feet and one near my shoulder — to be sure I was cozy and comfortable. Then she'd go around my body, putting in the hair-thin needles. They never go anywhere near the incisions — instead, she puts them into points on the meridians, or energy pathways, that stimulate a type of healing, blood flow, or what they call chi, or life energy. She'd give a little tap, and that would break the skin. It felt something like a mosquito bite. When she had all 12 to 14 needles in place, she started pushing them in a little bit, just until I'd feel a little shock, which is the needle getting right to the chi. I think of it as a fish jumping up to take the hook.
"I would feel so relaxed when she removed the needles — I had no feeling at all that they were coming out. And afterward, I'd be hungry — REALLY hungry. My husband and I would go out for a nice meal.
"You can't do without surgery or any other medical treatment; it's like a necessary sledgehammer. Acupuncture is a kinder, gentler way of healing, and it has helped to reduce my pain and get me back to a normal weight."
Learn more about acupuncture during and after breast cancer treatment.
Other patients' experiences:
"The complementary medicine department at the cancer center near me was wonderful — small but with a great staff. But to get the insurance company to pay a portion of this extra treatment, you had to walk to the ends of the earth. I was exhausted from my chemo sessions, and it was hard enough for me to get to my acupuncture appointment without traipsing all over the hospital. If these places are really committed to mixing conventional medicine with complementary therapies, they ought to make it easier for the patients. And patients have to let their third-party payers know how important this is." — Aisha
Find out more about the cost of complementary medicines.
"Six years ago, I was diagnosed with aggressive stage III breast cancer with 9 positive nodes. Through my doctor, I discovered the Cancer Healing Ministries. She coordinated my care, which consisted of surgery, Reiki, chemotherapy, and radiation. Each and every practitioner and their staff treated me with respect, humor, and genuine affection. When my breast cancer returned in the lungs and neck, I knew the same resources were there for me, already in place. I have been in treatment for just under 1 year now for the recurrence. I go forward each day (well, most days) with energy, faith, hope, and laughter." — Terry
Learn more about Reiki.
"I am a 15 1/2-year breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed the week of my 38th birthday. I am also a certified mastectomy fitter. It is my joy to work with the amazing women who come through the shop every day. Throughout the healing process, one of the things I have struggled with the most is perspective. It is so easy to lose touch with what is truly important and necessary when you are overwhelmed on so many levels. I have learned to breathe — to quiet my inner self — and to relax!! I have learned to 'be in the moment.' I have learned that everything I need is right inside of me, and how to find those resources within me when I need them." — Heather
What doctors say about complementary medicine
Medical doctors are trained in a system that scientifically examines disease and treatment through rigorous clinical trials. Many doctors need to see positive results from large clinical trials before recommending a treatment.
Other doctors have studied the benefits of complementary medicine and recommend it to their patients based on smaller studies and individual evidence. Others found out about complementary medicine from their patients and then studied on their own.
"What we have after all our conventional medicine are women who are cured of their disease, but afraid to live. That's why we need holistic medicine. It works in concert with conventional medicine, not in opposition to it."
— Beth Baughman DuPree, M.D., F.A.C.S.
"We'd like over time to use complementary therapies as part of new patient orientation. If they start out with it, it's a way of buffering the development of symptoms they might feel during treatment. We think that if we start out with yoga and relaxation before treatment, it might decrease symptoms and also make it easier to continue even after treatment because it will have become part of their lifestyle."
— Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., director of Integrative Medicine, The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center
"The conventional medical system doesn't support psychological and emotional issues relating to breast cancer. It's so hard for many patients to cope with their worry and depression that this can interfere with treatment. The greatest advantage of these complementary therapies, I think, is the amount of time the practitioners spend with patients. As to whether the treatments help with longevity and lowering risk of recurrence, that's unknown. But imagery, meditation, yoga, group support, these can all be of tremendous benefit."
— Debu Tripathy, M.D., director of the Komen/UTSW Breast Cancer Research Program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas
"Most patients come in initially asking very concrete questions, like 'What supplement should I take to make my nausea better?' Or 'How far should I walk each day right after surgery?' They generally get good guidance with that kind of thing from therapists. But what they don't expect at the beginning is the kind of partnership that develops along this journey. They are surprised at having practitioners who really listen deeply, and who pay attention to the needs of the whole person, rather than just the disease process. This is what's known as healing, and healing takes a lot longer than just being out of treatment."
— Tracy Gaudet, M.D., director of the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine
"Hope through options or alternatives is an important component of integrative medicine. Some doctors say, 'You're just raising their hopes.' I say, what's wrong with hope?"
— Ronald P. Ciccone, M.D., medical director, Integrative Family Medicine at Lourdes Wellness Center
Top 5 Reasons People Use Complementary Medicine
- They can help you take charge of the way you cope with having breast cancer.
- They may be able to help relieve some of the anxiety and depression caused by having cancer and being treated for it.
- They may help to reduce some symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, and nausea.
- They may improve your quality of life by causing you to pay attention to feeling well instead of feeling sick.
- Practitioners may spend a lot of time with you (for example, massage or acupuncture sessions take about an hour) and can really get to understand your concerns.