Herbal supplements and risk of recurrence?

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Question from Chris: Could you tell me if any herbal supplements are helpful in lowering the risk of recurrence?
Answers - Ruth Oratz, M.D., F.A.C.P. There is a great deal of interest in sorting out the impact of a variety of complementary therapies on breast cancer. These include herbal treatments, physical therapy as you just heard about (energy therapy, Reiki, acupuncture, yoga), as well as the effects of diet and exercise. It is very, very difficult to demonstrate the impact of these treatments on the course of breast cancer. Nonetheless, there is some preliminary data that yoga and perhaps other forms of exercise may help alleviate side effects and symptoms from breast cancer treatments and also may, in fact, have a beneficial effect on prognosis. We also know that obesity has a negative effect, particularly in postmenopausal women. So diet and exercise may be somewhat helpful in reducing the risk of recurrence in postmenopausal women with breast cancer.

The role of herbal therapies is very difficult to sort out. There are no studies to date that demonstrate either a clear-cut benefit or a clear-cut harm from the use of herbal treatments. Of concern is the fact that some herbal remedies may contain phytoestrogens. These substances are molecules derived from plants, which mimic the activity of estrogen. It is possible, although not definitively proven, that large quantities of phytoestrogens may act like estrogen, and for women who have estrogen-sensitive or ER-positive breast cancer, these agents may be contraindicators. On the other hand, there is some provocative data that perhaps phytoestrogens, and perhaps in particular soy products, may be protective against the development of breast cancer. So we're right now in the time where the information and data about herbal treatments is still somewhat unclear. My recommendation to women with breast cancer is to consult with naturopaths and practitioners who are experts in herbal therapy, as well as consulting with your medical oncologist to find herbal treatments that could be beneficial while not being harmful. I generally recommend avoiding large amounts or high doses of phytoestrogens, but many other herbal treatments can be helpful in managing the side effects of breast cancer or breast cancer treatment. We need more research in this area and I hope that we will see more support for these kinds of investigations in order to answer these questions with good, scientific evidence.

The Ask-the-Expert Online Conference called Open for Your Questions featured Ruth Oratz, M.D., F.A.C.P. and moderator Beth Baughman DuPree, M.D., F.A.C.S. answering your questions covering a wide variety of issues relating to breast cancer.

Editor's Note: This conference took place in September 2006.

The materials presented in these conferences do not necessarily reflect the views of Breastcancer.org. A qualified healthcare professional should be consulted before using any therapeutic product or regimen discussed. All readers should verify all information and data before employing any therapies described here.

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