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Complementary therapy


As you begin to move through or complete treatment, you may seek ways to lessen physical and emotional side effects. More and more people are adding complementary therapies to conventional treatment. They are adopting an integrative medicine approach to overall care.

Complementary and integrative medicine, or CIM, is the term used to describe complementary therapies used to ease side effects, such as anxiety and fatigue, caused by conventional cancer treatment. Integrative medicine is a medical treatment plan that uses both conventional and complementary therapies to treat cancer and its effects.

You may already be familiar with some complementary therapies, like yoga, tai chi or acupuncture, because they are widely available. Some you may have tried before you were diagnosed with breast cancer, either as a form of exercise or to cope with daily stress. Others may be new to you.

In this section, you will learn more about complementary therapies available in cancer and community centers or in private practice settings. For more details about what you can find in this section, look at the navigation on the left.


What is complementary therapy?

Practices such as acupuncture, yoga and meditation are often called complementary and integrative medicine, or CIM, for short. There is an agency within the U.S. National Institutes of Health called the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health that researches these practices.

The terms alternative, complementary and integrative are sometimes misused to describe the same things, so knowing the differences among them is important.

  • Complementary therapies are physical, mental and spiritual practices used in addition to standard medical care, both during and after cancer treatment. For example, you may use acupuncture, a complementary therapy, alongside standard anti-nausea medicines to help relieve nausea while you’re receiving chemotherapy treatments.
  • Integrative medicine blends standard medical care to treat the cancer along with complementary therapies that may lessen some side effects of diagnosis and treatment, such as stress, anxiety, weight gain/loss and fatigue.
  • Alternative medicine is used in place of standard medical care. This means you don’t have treatment with chemotherapy, surgery, hormonal therapy, etc., for breast cancer. Instead, you rely only on supplements or herbal remedies.

Complementary therapies are often offered as part of an integrative breast cancer therapy plan at many hospitals and cancer centers across the U.S.

At LBBC, we believe the best approach to cancer care is medical treatment that includes managing side effects, either with or without complementary therapies. We do not support or recommend alternative medicine, which is used in place of standard medical care.


Who gets complementary therapy

People of all ages and with all stages of breast cancer can access complementary and integrative medicine, or CIM. Some studies have been done of CIM with people with both early-stage and metastatic breast cancer, but much research remains to be done.

In some hospitals and cancer centers, CIM is offered as part of your treatment plan. You may take part in classes or sessions led by professional, licensed practitioners who work with your doctors to care for you.

Make sure to talk with your doctors before starting any complementary therapies. You may find your medical team is reluctant to talk about CIM. They may not know much about specific therapies and their impact on breast cancer. Be open about your interest, even if they don’t seem able to help you at first. It’s important for your doctors to be able to talk with you about any interactions your CIM could have with other medicines, how long to wait to start physical activity after surgery, and the risk of side effects like lymphedema from CIM activities.


Finding trusted CIM practitioners

You may come across CIM practitioners who claim their therapy or medicine can cure cancer. If anyone makes this claim, or requires that you stop conventional treatment before working with you, look for someone else.

It’s important you trust your therapist. Private providers may help if you do not connect well with those at your hospital or community center. Look for someone certified in their field who has worked with people with breast cancer. If you cannot find someone, tell your practitioner about your diagnosis and concerns. It’s OK to ask to meet before you start classes or sessions to make sure the practice is safe for you.

Some questions to ask your CIM practitioner before working together are:

  • Do you have experience working with people with breast cancer?
  • How will your practice interact with my medicines or treatment?
  • What training do you have in your field?
  • What skills can you teach me to practice on my own?
  • If I can’t do a pose or position safely, will you show me how to adapt it to my needs?

Living Beyond Breast Cancer is a national nonprofit organization that seeks to create a world that understands there is more than one way to have breast cancer. To fulfill its mission of providing trusted information and a community of support to those impacted by the disease, Living Beyond Breast Cancer offers on-demand emotional, practical, and evidence-based content. For over 30 years, the organization has remained committed to creating a culture of acceptance — where sharing the diversity of the lived experience of breast cancer fosters self-advocacy and hope. For more information, learn more about our programs and services.