After Carol Hoff, of Marble Falls, Texas, was diagnosed with stage II triple-negative breast cancer, she felt intense anxiety and dread.
“I was scared out of my mind,” she says. “It was all I could think about. I was not living in the moment, and it was driving me crazy.”
Following surgery, Carol began having acupuncture once every 3 weeks to help boost her immune system, reduce anxiety and keep her mind and body strong throughout chemotherapy.
“A wave of calmness set in that I can’t explain. It helped me focus on what I needed to focus on — trying to make well-informed decisions with a clear head,” she says. “I got through [chemotherapy treatment] with very little discomfort, and my white blood cell count stayed at healthy levels.”
Shortly after her diagnosis, Carol also began attending a weekly yoga class to improve her physical strength and promote relaxation. “It’s like taking a big, big sigh of relief,” she says.
Carol is one of many women diagnosed with breast cancer who have combined complementary therapies with medical treatment to improve overall wellness and to ease symptoms and treatment side effects.
What Are Complementary Therapies, and Why Use Them?
Integrative or complementary therapies such as acupuncture, yoga and meditation don’t treat the cancer itself and should not be used as alternatives to conventional medicine. Instead, they are used along with — not instead of — mainstream cancer care to manage physical and emotional side effects, says Barrie R. Cassileth, MS, PhD, chief of the integrative medicine department at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
"Symptom control is an important issue, and integrative therapies can reduce the amount of narcotics required to control pain and maintain comfort levels without side effects," Dr. Cassileth says. "Complementary modalities are noninvasive, non-addictive and inexpensive, and they work. They've been shown to relieve anxiety, depression, nausea, vomiting and pain, among other side effects of cancer and cancer treatment."
As evidence continues to show the benefits of integrative practices, interest across the medical community and research has increased.
Complementary medicine brings together many types of treatments, some of which are based in ancient practices. These therapies are customized to fit your needs, and it is important to find a certified practitioner you feel comfortable with and who is trained to work with people diagnosed with cancer.
Here are three popular complementary therapies commonly used to supplement medical treatment. Talk with your doctor before integrating any of these practices into your treatment plan.
Originating in China more than 2,000 years ago, acupuncture involves inserting very thin, sterile needles into specific points on the body. This was thought to remove blockages of energy, or qi, to restore healthy functioning, but research has produced a modern understanding of how it works in the body. Acupuncture has been shown to relieve hot flashes, chronic fatigue, pain, stress and anxiety, among other symptoms.
“Research suggests that acupuncture works through the nervous system,” Dr. Cassileth says. “It has also shown to be effective in animals and children, which suggests it is not necessarily a placebo response. It is very safe, and side effects are few and far between, if any.”
During your visit, your acupuncturist will ask questions to decide on the best treatment for you. Needles will then be inserted into various acupuncture points on your skin depending on your symptoms. The effects of acupuncture vary; relief from symptoms can come immediately or days after treatment.
After Lynn Folkman, of Philadelphia, Pa., had chemotherapy for stage I breast cancer, she started having acupuncture once weekly to help lessen her fatigue. Her acupuncturist placed needles in the skin of her feet, shins, abdomen, chest, head, throat, ears and arms.
“I found working with an acupuncturist supported my body, mind and spirit and facilitated healing in a way that was complementary to my traditional treatment,” she says.
A typical acupuncture session lasts between 15 and 60 minutes. Most people feel no pain or feel minor discomfort as the needles are inserted.
“I’m very nervous about needles, and I thought the last thing I wanted was more needles. But once I got comfortable, I would go into a meditative state and forget about everything,” Lynn says. “I got to this place of peace and rest that I couldn’t get through sleep.”
Ariel Weiss, of Wallingford, Pa., was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer at age 46. After surgery, she began having acupuncture once weekly to boost her immune system and help with anxiety, fatigue and depression throughout her treatment with radiation and the hormonal therapy tamoxifen.
“My acupuncturist helped balance out the combating energies of radiation (depleting) and tamoxifen (over-stimulating),”Ariel says. “My weekly treatments were a highlight, and the deep trances I experienced re-centered me and gave me a sense of peace.”
Acupuncture may not be right for everyone, and some precautions should be taken. Avoid acupuncture if you are taking blood thinners, have a low white blood cell count or are pregnant. If you had lymph nodes removed from your armpit, you should not have needles placed in that arm. Herbal supplements may be recommended by some practitioners, but they should not be used by anyone undergoing cancer treatment, Dr. Cassileth says. Be sure to speak with your doctor first.
Acupuncture costs about $65 for a private session and about $35 for a community session, which involves one practitioner administering treatment to more than one recipient. Some insurance plans may cover the cost of acupuncture during cancer treatments or offer discounts.
Yoga combines physical postures or poses with breathing techniques to strengthen and lengthen muscles and promote healthy joints. There are many different styles of yoga ranging from the slow-paced and gentle, like Hatha, to the more vigorous, like Vinyasa.
“With cancer patients, we tend to use yoga that incorporates breath and meditation,” Dr. Cassileth says. “Yoga calms the mind, helps people meditate and takes them to a calm place, which has major positive benefit to well-being over time.”
Research has shown that yoga can help increase energy and improve mental health in women undergoing treatment for breast cancer. A recent study published in Journal of Clinical Oncology found yoga diminished fatigue and improved sleep quality in people diagnosed with cancer.
Three years after finishing surgery, chemotherapy and reconstruction for stage I breast cancer, Joy Sayles, of Bettendorf, Iowa, started taking a yoga class for people diagnosed with cancer at her local YMCA. The classes give her a sense of control over her body.
“I was curled over because of surgery, and yoga helped me learn how to get back good posture, loosen up my chest and move around better — I didn’t realize how stiff I had become,” Joy says. “It also helped me to sleep better.”
Most qualified yoga teachers have completed a certification program with a recognized teacher or organization. It is important to find a yoga practice that suits both your needs and abilities.
Mindfulness meditation is a technique that helps you focus on the present moment by being aware of what is happening in your body, mind and environment.
“It is being open to experience,” says Diane Reibel, PhD, director of the Mindfulness Institute at Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pa. “Being able to bring care and attention to what is happening in the present moment can be very healing.”
Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety, depression and pain while improving concentration, vitality and immune function. While Lynn was undergoing treatment with radiation and taking trastuzumab (Herceptin), she participated in a clinical trial where she received 8 weeks of art therapy combined with mindfulness meditation.
“The weekly classes gave me a tremendous sense of peace and strength. I re-connected with parts of myself that I had long forgotten,” Lynn says.
There are many kinds of mindfulness practices. Some involve attention to breathing while letting thoughts come and go; others involve eating mindfully while using your senses to open fully to your experience. “You are training your mind to come back to the present moment whenever it wanders away,” Dr. Reibel says.
Many hospitals, universities, yoga and holistic health centers have mindfulness meditation programs. You can also find classes online or learn to meditate through CDs and books, though Dr. Reibel recommends finding an experienced practitioner to talk with in case questions come up.
Although most insurance plans do not cover the cost of mindfulness meditation classes, ask if your local hospital or university mindfulness program offers financial assistance.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an overview of complementary practices that might be right for you, (888) 644-6226, nccam.nih.gov
American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, find licensed acupuncture practitioners in your state, medicalacupuncture.org
The Yoga Alliance, offers a database of qualified teachers and schools in the U.S., yogaalliance.org
Center for Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts, find teachers in your state who received training from the oldest and largest academic medical center-based stress reduction program in the world, umassmed.edu/cfm