Complementary & Alternative Therapies

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) includes a wide collection of healing methods and practices that are non-traditional. Many people use CAM along with mainstream medical treatment to help relieve symptoms and cope with side effects of treatment.

Complementary medicine vs. alternative medicine

The terms “complementary medicine” and “alternative medicine” are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they differ in how they are applied. Complementary medicine is the use of a non-mainstream approach along with traditional treatment. Alternative medicine is using non-mainstream approaches in place of traditional treatment. Integrative health brings together mainstream medical treatment and complementary approaches in a coordinated way.1

Some CAM approaches are provided by people with formal training or certifications. Others may be offered by people with informal or no training. When considering adding CAM therapies to your treatment regimen, keep in mind that many of these approaches have not been studied. While many people believe CAM therapies are safe and do not have harmful side effects, that is not always true. While many CAM approaches can be used alongside traditional medicine, it is key to tell your doctors all the approaches you are considering. This is because some CAM can reduce the effectiveness of traditional medicine or may cause other serious problems.2

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Complementary and alternative medicine use in breast cancer

Many women with breast cancer use CAM approaches. In fact, women with breast cancer are more likely to use CAM than people with other types of cancer, including colorectal, prostate, or gynecologic cancers. Researchers estimate that as many as 75 percent of all women with breast cancer use some form of CAM.3

While there have been few clinical studies on CAM in breast cancer, there is no research that shows any CAM can slow or stop breast cancer. However, many women with breast cancer turn to CAM for support with side effects or to help relieve symptoms. Some women use CAM because they believe it can help recovery or healing. Others report they use CAM to boost their immune system. Some studies have found that people believe CAM may also help improve emotional health, such as providing a sense of control and reducing stress.3

If you are interested in CAM, it is important to do your research from reputable sites, not ads, and talk with your doctor. It is very important to talk to your care team before you start a complementary therapy or stop mainstream treatment in order to practice alternative medicine. Stopping treatment can lead to progression of your cancer to life-threatening levels. Starting a new complementary therapy, especially a dietary or herbal supplement, may decrease the effectiveness of your current standard medical treatment.

Types of complementary and alternative medicine

Common CAM approaches include3:

  • Special diets or foods
  • Supplements, such as vitamins, minerals, or herbs
  • Meditation or prayer
  • Traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture
  • Energy medicine, such as Reiki or Qigong
  • Bodywork, such as massage therapy

What is the mind-body connection?

Many CAM approaches, such as meditation, visualization, hypnotherapy, and some energy practices, refer to the mind-body connection. The mind-body connection recognizes that emotional, mental, and behavioral factors can directly affect our health. Plus, mind-body methods may improve the quality of life and help reduce symptoms of the disease. However, the mind-body connection does not imply that the mind is the cause of breast cancer. Studies that have looked at a connection between stress and cancer have not found one. However, researchers have found that mind-body methods like mindfulness and meditation have potential benefits, such as reducing stress and improving mood in people with cancer.4,5