beth israel deaconess medical center a harvard medical school teaching hospital

  • Contact BIDMC
  • Maps & Directions
  • Other Locations
  • Careers at BIDMC
  • Smaller Larger

Find a Doctor

Request an Appointment

Smaller Larger

Understanding Complementary Therapies

Posted 10/13/2014

Posted in

  Several different terms are used for these modalities, but "complementary therapies" or CAM (complementary alternative therapies) are the most common. "Alternative therapies" suggests that they are being used instead of western medicine, and I suspect that is sometimes true. I also suspect that people who make that choice are not likely to be reading this blog.

  Most cancer patients at least consider adding something from the CAM repertoire to their treatment. Whether that is a diet change, acupuncture, Tai Chi, meditation, or one of a number of different things is variable. In my practice through the years, acupuncture has been the most common choice. As I write that, I realize that is probably not true; it is more likely that at least thinking about a diet change is the most common, followed by acupuncture.

  There are approximately a zillion products for sale that purport to treat (or prevent or even cure) cancer. The warning should be in large letters on all of them: Everything that sounds too good to be true probably isn't. Having said that, I know many women who have felt better due to acupuncture or massage, and plenty of people swear to their benefits. I worry a lot about unscrupulous practitioners who prey on scared and worried people; who wouldn't rather drink special tea than have chemotherapy? The caveat obviously is that none of those special teas (or powders or capsules) have been tested and no one knows if they do harm, let alone if they do any good.

  Clearly I stand quite firmly on one side of this divide, and I do respect other peoples' opinions. What is really important is this: talk to your doctor and any CAM practitioners about everything you are doing. Most oncologists will ask that you refrain from taking any treatments that you ingest until active treatment (chemo or radiaton) is completed. It does not seem worth the risk of interfering with those treatments. While on chemo or radiation, it is fine to do things like meditation or acupuncture or Tai Chi--anything external to your skin. And I strongly support each of us doing anything that helps us feel empowered and as though we are regaining a bit of control.

  This is an introduction to a new and excellent guide from Living Beyond Breast Cancer about complementary therapies. If you are a reader with a different cancer, be reassured that nothing in this guide is only related to breast cancer. The information is helpful to us all. I give you the start and then a link. You can download it, read in on line, listen to it.

Guide to Understanding Complementary Therapies
1st Ed., 2014

Written By Nicole Katze, MA, Editor and Manager, Publications
Reviewed By Donald Abrams, MD, Michael J. Baime, MD, Sharon Bray, EdD, Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, Debra DeMille, MS, RD, CSO, Michael Richardson, MT-BC & Steven Rosenzweig, MD

Complementary therapies are nonmedical approaches to care that many women with breast cancer consider using during and after treatment. Some studies show that integrating these therapies into your treatment plan may help alleviate some physical and emotional side effects.

This guide will help you understand the differences between complementary therapies and alternative medicine; learn about integrative medicine programs; and gain useful knowledge about some of the most common complementary therapies available. Sections in the guide discuss acupuncture, meditation, tai chi and reiki, among others.

Learn what symptoms and side effects each therapy may help ease and the level of scientific evidence available for each practice. Get practical advice about where you can access them, what to look for in a trained professional, and where to find other resources for trusted information.


Add your comment



  • Laurie Gass said:
    10/14/2014 2:19 PM

    I am writing gratefully from 16 years beyond breast cancer. In my experience complementary therapies made a really important difference in my quality of life during treatment. Specifically, I believe that chemo and radiation were saving my life while acupuncture, guided imagery, and Swaroopa yoga helped make me overall better. I participated in a study for high dose chemotherapy that "guaranteed" that I had severe nausea for six months for specific stretches of days after each dose. The three therapies and therapists became part of the team that helped me feel more comfortable in my body, less anxious, and maybe most important, were a vital, healthy distraction that worked well for me. I could tune into to an MP3 imagery "A Meditation to Help with Chemotherapy" by Belleruth Naparstek (this was the person and tape that I loved--there are dozens & dozens of others out there) anytime, do a relaxing yoga pose, anytime, see my acupuncturist and sleep better for days afterward. Substitute any complementary therapies that you believe in and can get behind: belief is a vital part of healing!