Complementary Therapies vs. Alternative Therapies

Complementary therapies can play a role in breast cancer treatmentAs you begin to explore your options for breast cancer treatment, you will probably hear about things like acupuncture, antioxidants, macrobiotic diets, imagery, aromatherapy, as well as other complementary or alternative therapies. It’s extremely important that you understand the difference among conventional or traditional medicine, complementary therapies, and alternative therapies.


Conventional treatment

is what is currently accepted by reputable healthcare providers. It is based on decades of sound medical research, and represents the best that Western medicine has to offer today.

Complementary therapies

may or may not have been evaluated as rigorously as conventional treatment, but they are widely and successfully used to relieve side effects of cancer treatment, and to enhance the quality of life.

Alternative therapies

by contrast, have no medically sound foundation, and no credible evidence of any beneficial effect. They represent a dangerous temptation for those who may be skeptical about traditional medical treatment.

Consult your healthcare team before trying any type of complementary therapy to make sure it won’t interfere with your treatment. And certainly have an informed discussion with them if you are contemplating embarking on an alternative course of treatment. Your health and even your life are at stake.


Practitioners refer to these therapies as complementary, rather than alternative, because they are to be used only in conjunction with—not instead of—the treatment recommended by your doctors. You still need surgery, or chemotherapy or whatever other conventional treatment is right for you.

There is a wide variety of complementary therapies, some based on principles adopted from other specialties (for example, relaxation), from Oriental medicine (acupuncture) from Indian medicine (yoga), or even from ancient Egyptian culture (aromatherapy).

Mind/Body Connection

Many complementary therapies are based on the principle of mind/body connection. For centuries, people have believed that there is a connection between the state of the mind and the health of the body. How this connection worked, however, was never quite clear.

Recently, scientists have identified chemicals, called neurotransmitters, by which nerve cells communicate with one another. Neurotransmitters are also involved in the control of emotions. For example, antidepressant medications increase the amount of norepinephrine and serotonin in the spaces between nerve cells. These same neurotransmitters have effects elsewhere in the body, affecting heart rate and blood pressure, and may even influence the activity of cells in the immune system.

Changes in the state of the nervous system which can occur because of stress or lack of social support, can influence many organ systems. For example, it has been found that people under stress are more likely to develop colds.

Anxiety, grief, stress, and fear of the unknown all seem to have an impact on the body. Learning to cope with these emotions, using a wide variety of approaches—such as meditation and visualization, spiritual support, and participation in support groups—may help speed your recovery, and benefit your health.

Meditation and Visualization

Many healthcare professionals refer to “meditation” and “visualization” as “stress reduction,” or “relaxation.”

Meditation has been shown to produce physiological responses such as a decrease in blood pressure, respiration rate, and overall metabolism—all of which contribute to reducing stress on our minds and bodies. Guided imagery or visualization (for example, visualizing natural killer cells gobbling up cancers cells like in the old game Pac-Man) can also be used with meditation.

There is no claim that meditation and visualization can cure cancer, but studies have proven that a combination of these techniques can reduce pain and other uncomfortable side effects of cancer treatment.

Spiritual Support

Since prehistoric times, prayer has been one of the most common ways of dealing with pain and illness in all civilizations. Today many accept that some form of spiritual support is a basic human need. Prayer, laying on of hands, and many forms of spiritual imagery or inner dialogue have helped patients find the higher strength within themselves to cope with breast cancer and other illness.

Many cancer patients rely on their religious traditions to regain control and gather additional strength to battle cancer. Even those who have little or no connection with religion, often find themselves moved by the “spiritual emergency” of cancer.

Humor / Laughter

Laughter can stimulate endorphins—chemicals that act like opiates in the brain. You might find humor and laughter emotionally healing. In addition, giving yourself time not to think about your cancer can have a wonderfully invigorating effect.

While some enjoy standup comedians, others may prefer movies or sitcom reruns. When undergoing cancer treatment, writer Norman Cousins discovered that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect that would give him at least two hours of pain-free sleep.


There’s still a great deal of controversy on the subject of nutrition and its effect on breast cancer. So far, there’s no scientific data to prove one diet better than another for breast cancer treatment.

Most physicians recommend that patients simply follow good nutrition, with particular emphasis on protein and vitamins during chemotherapy treatment. A consultation with a nutritionist will help you learn more about your particular needs.

Macrobiotic diets emphasize whole grains, miso soup, fresh vegetables and beans, with little fruit and no sugar. Special diets such as these may someday prove to be effective for patients with certain types of cancer, but more scientific research is needed in this area.

Herbal Therapy

The majority of herbal therapies are based on the belief that they improve organ function. There is increasing evidence from Asian and European countries that some herbs can be effective in fighting cancer. Common herbs and medicinal plants used for breast cancer include Astragalus root, burdock root, garlic, green tea, licorice root and a variety of others.

Some herbal preparations are extremely potent and may be harmful. You should always consult your healthcare professional before beginning herbal therapy, since some preparations may interfere with your treatment.


Many biological processes in the body lead to the formation of toxic products such as toxic lipid peroxides, which can damage DNA in cells, leading to cancer. Vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene are “anti-oxidant” vitamins commonly used to neutralize these potentially toxic products. In addition, elements such as selenium and copper may be useful, in trace amounts only, to facilitate the defense against toxic peroxides.Vitamins for breast cancer

Bear in mind that antioxidants may interfere with the beneficial effects of radiation, and should be used only with the approval of your radiation oncologist. Contact the National Cancer Institute or the American Cancer Society to find out about the latest recommendations on the topic of antioxidants and vitamins.



Acupuncture and homeopathy are based on the concept that there is a life force within our body organs. This life force maintains the body in a state of health, but predisposes us to disease when it is unbalanced.

Dawn Flickema, MD – About acupuncture

Acupuncture is a technique, first developed in ancient China, which involves insertion of needles at specific points in the body to balance the life force.

The theory behind acupuncture is that there are special meridian points on the body that are connected to internal organs. Vital energy flows along the meridian lines, and diseases are caused by an imbalance of this flow. Normal flow of vital energy is restored by inserting needles at the meridian points. Current research suggests that acupuncture needles may work by triggering the release of natural pain inhibitors.

In China, acupuncture has long been used for pain relief, and for treatment of ailments such as arthritis, hypertension, and ulcers. A growing number of Western physicians use acupuncture to relieve nausea, pain or other symptoms associated with cancer.


Practitioners of homeopathy believe that minute, highly diluted doses of a medicine treat the life force of organs such as the liver, kidneys, or intestines. Although homeopathy is questioned by most American physicians, it is widely used in Europe and Asia.