Complementary and integrative medicine for metastatic breast cancer

Complementary and integrative medicine (CIM) describes the combination of conventional cancer treatment and complementary therapies, such as acupuncture and guided imagery, that can help ease treatment side effects such as fatigue or anxiety. If you’ve been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, complementary and integrative medicine can be an especially helpful approach.

You may hear people using different terms, some inaccurate, to describe CIM. Here’s a clear breakdown:

  • Complementary therapies are physical, mental, and spiritual practices used in addition to standard medical care, both during and after cancer treatment. For example, a person may decide to try mindfulness-based stress reduction, a complementary therapy, to help reduce anxiety during chemotherapy sessions.
  • “Integrative medicine” is the term that describes the blending of standard medical care that treats the cancer with complementary therapies to try to reduce some side effects of diagnosis and treatment, such as stress and nausea. Integrative medicine works to control the growth of the cancer and supports mental and spiritual well-being at the same time.
  • “Alternative medicine” is used in place of standard medical care. This means deciding not to have standard treatment with chemotherapy, surgery, hormonal therapy, or targeted therapy. Instead, people who choose alternative medicine are choosing to rely on supplements, herbal remedies, or other non-standard methods.

LBBC believes the most effective approach to cancer care is standard 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.

Types of complementary therapies

There are many kinds of complementary therapies available. You can ask your doctor or the social worker at your cancer center if there are low-cost or free complementary therapy resources at the center or in your area. Health insurance plans sometimes cover part or all of the cost of complementary therapies, so it’s worth contacting your insurance provider to ask.

If complementary therapies aren’t available where you live or if you aren’t able to travel, some therapies — such as guided imagery, art therapy, and mindfulness-based stress reduction — may be offered remotely through online video sessions or using a phone app so you can participate from home. Your cancer center’s social worker may be able to direct you to remote resources.   

Below, you can find some of the most popular complementary therapies.

The importance of integrative care while being treated for metastatic breast cancer

Metastatic breast cancer treatment is focused on controlling the cancer with the fewest side effects possible. Since treatment is ongoing, adding complementary therapies as part of integrative care puts the main focus on your sense of well-being and quality of life.

While complementary therapies do not treat cancer directly, they can reduce the severity of some side effects, such as nausea, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.

To learn more about complementary therapies, listen to “Metastatic Breast Cancer: The Role of Integrative Care” featuring Pallav K. Mehta, MD, director of integrative oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper.

In this presentation, Dr. Mehta addresses

  • things to consider when researching integrative care
  • details on specific practices such as acupuncture and meditation 
  • why it’s important to talk with your healthcare team about integrative care
  • ways to find qualified integrative care practitioners

Return to Diagnosis & treatment overview

Updated 
July 17, 2020