Complementary Therapies Popular But Not Well Understood

Breast Cancer News
November 4, 2014
Angela Knight
Reviewed By: 
Mitchell L. Gaynor, MD

A recent study found that though complementary therapy use is widespread, many women don’t understand the impact some therapies may have on their breast cancer treatment or general health. Complementary therapies are non-medical approaches to care used along with medical treatment, such as acupuncture, tai chi and meditation.

Background and Goals

Many women diagnosed with breast cancer seek complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to help with treatment side effects. CAM includes therapies and practices that can be used along with traditional medical treatment.

This study identified how often and what types of CAM treatments were used by women undergoing chemotherapy or hormonal therapy for breast cancer. It also explored why they used CAM and examined both their knowledge of the therapies and where they got CAM information. This data allowed the researchers to assess the need for better education on CAM practices.


A group of 69 French women with early-stage breast cancer were followed over a 3-month period. All were receiving chemotherapy or taking hormonal therapy such as tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor. They had reported using at least one popular CAM method.

Surveys were initiated before chemotherapy started or during a follow-up visit. They were returned anonymously by mail with a pre-paid envelope. The survey collected data on:

  • age, gender, profession and physical activity
  • type of CAM used
  • how often and for how long CAM was used
  • why CAM was used
  • sources of information about CAM
  • self-described chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy side effects experienced over the last month


Out of 442 total surveys, 205 women undergoing chemotherapy and 237 taking hormonal therapy responded, with 69 of respondents reporting use of at least one CAM. The surveys showed:

  • plants, homoeopathy and other unprescribed medicines were the most commonly used, followed by physical therapies and special diets
  • preventing or lessening side effects was the most common reason for using CAM, followed by bettering general health, increasing general well-being, preventing symptoms of disease and using as cancer treatments
  • almost three-quarters of the women did not think CAM therapies could cause side effects
  • almost two-thirds of the women reported being given proof of CAM effectiveness from a doctor or close contact
  • a majority of women felt the hospital should provide more information on CAM therapies

This last point shows that nearly one-third of the women were not given scientific proof or advice, which is roughly half of those who reported using CAM. Some of the reasons non-users gave for avoiding CAM use, included

  • believing it unnecessary
  • lacking information
  • existing scientific uncertainty of its effectiveness


This study was only carried out in France, and the authors note more people use CAM in the United States. The populations differ and the CAM methods and techniques used might also be different.

The study did not show a difference in the number of reported treatment side effects between users and non-users of CAM. The study’s small group and the fact that they had early-stage disease may have impacted this finding.

What This Means for You

Knowing more about whether CAM therapies work and getting advice from your doctor may help you decide whether or not to try them. Some therapies may provide you relief from treatment side effects. Talk with your doctor about methods that might complement your medical treatment, and tell your care team about any CAM therapy you want to try before trying it.

Depending on your personal situation, some CAM practices may be covered by your health insurance and lower your financial obligation while providing better access to care. As a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient, you should always seek open communication with your doctors to ensure that you know all your options and build trust in your care team.

Read more about complementary therapies you might find in your cancer center or in private practice in our Guide to Understanding Complementary Therapies.

Editor's Note

CAM therapies like herbal supplements, unprescribed medicines, plants and homeopathy can cause your breast cancer medicines to stop working or not work as well as they should. It is important to tell your doctor about any and all supplements or medicines you want to take to make sure you are getting the medical care you need. You should never use CAM alone as a replacement for your breast cancer treatment. 

Mahasti Saghatchian, Céline Bihan, Catherine Chenailler, Chafika Mazouni, Sarah Dauchy, Suzette Delaloge.  Exploring frontiers: Use of complementary and alternative medicine among patients with early-stage breast cancer.The Breast 23 (2014);

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