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Complementary & Alternative Therapies

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

Complementary medicine versus alternative medicine

The terms “complementary medicine” and “alternative medicine” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually differ in how they are applied. Complementary medicine is the use of a non-mainstream approach in combination with traditional treatment. Alternative medicine is using non-mainstream approaches in place of traditional treatment. Another form of healthcare, called integrative health, brings together a mainstream medical treatment and complementary approaches in a coordinated way.1

Some CAM approaches are provided by people with formal training or certifications, but others may be offered by people with informal or no training. When considering adding CAM therapies to your treatment regimen, it’s important to keep in mind that many of these approaches have not been studied. Although many people believe that 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’s critical to share with your doctors all the approaches you are considering using, as some CAM can reduce the effectiveness of traditional medicine or may cause other serious problems.2

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 patients with other types of cancer, including colorectal, prostate, or gynecologic cancers. Researchers estimate that as many as 75% of all women with breast cancer use some form of complementary or alternative medicine.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 be helpful to recovering or healing, and others report they use CAM to boost their immune system. Some studies have found that patients believe CAM may also help improve emotional health, such as providing a sense of control and reducing stress.3

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, and mind-body techniques can potentially improve the quality of life and may help reduce symptoms of the disease. The mind-body connection does not imply that the mind is the cause of breast cancer, and studies that have looked at a connection between stress and cancer have not found one. However, researchers have found that mind-body techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can have potential benefits, such as reducing stress and improving mood in people with cancer.4,5

Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: December 2018.
  1. Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: what’s in a name? National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Available at https://nccih.nih.gov/health/integrative-health. Accessed 10/26/18.
  2. What are complementary and alternative methods? American Cancer Society. Available at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/complementary-and-alternative-methods-and-cancer/what-are-cam.html. Accessed 10/26/18.
  3. Wanchai A, Armer JM, Stewart BR. Complementary and alternative medicine use among women with breast cancer: a systematic review. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2010 Aug;14(4):E45-55. doi: 10.1188/10.CJON.E45-E55.
  4. McGee R. Does stress cause cancer? BMJ. 1999 Oct 16;319(7216):1015-1016.
  5. Speca M, Carlson LE, Goodey E, Angen M. A randomized, wait-list controlled clinical trial: the effect of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2000 Sept/Oct 62(5):613-622.