Thumbs-Up for Complementary and Alternative Medicine 

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work

MARCH 04, 2019

Conservative cancer organization sees benefits for breast cancer patients

We all know that many, maybe most, people going through treatment for cancer use some kind of complementary therapy (CAM=Complementary and Alternative Medicine) in addition to their prescribed medical care. This can range from dietary supplements to yoga to cupping therapy. The standard advice has been to discuss everything you are doing with your doctors, and this includes disclosing your cancer treatment specifics to any CAM practitioners, and to refrain from taking anything orally during active treatment. The worry there is that there may be interactions between some high doses of vitamins or supplements and chemotherapy drugs or radiation. If you are going to go through treatment, you clearly don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the best possible results.

My clinical experience has been that almost all of my patients have at least expressed an interest in learning more about CAM therapies, and many have incorporated some into their lives during and after cancer. Their choices have ranged from diet changes (and that includes everything from trying to eat more vegetables to complete changes and adherence to special diets) to becoming more frequent exercisers to learning meditation. There are many choices.

It is interesting and rather surprising that ASCO, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, has recently released a statement about the use of CAM therapies during and after breast cancer treatment. ASCO is the huge and active professional organization for oncologists worldwide. They tend to be cautious and somewhat conservative when responding to controversial topics, so their statement is important. They link certain treatments to specific goals and are clear about the value, or not, of others. Here is their summary:

Key recommendations include the following: Music therapy, meditation, stress management and yoga are recommended for anxiety/stress reduction. Meditation, relaxation, yoga, massage and music therapy are recommended for depression/mood disorders. Meditation and yoga are recommended to improve quality of life. Acupressure and acupuncture are recommended for reducing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Acetyl-l-carnitine is not recommended to prevent chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy because of a possibility of harm. No strong evidence supports the use of ingested dietary supplements to manage breast cancer treatment–related adverse effects. You can read more here.

Note that their position is consistent with the standard advice to avoid ingesting anything extra during treatment. The strategies that seem helpful, including music therapy, yoga and meditation, do not include swallowing!  Even with this endorsement of some CAM therapies, it is important to include your doctors in your plans. Don’t expect them to be wildly enthusiastic, but, hopefully and probably, they will be supportive. One caveat is to beware of anything that sounds too good to be true and to be wary of anything that seems overpriced. There unfortunately are people who are trying to make money from other peoples’ misfortunes.

At BIDMC, we have the Cheng-Tsui Center for Integrative Medicine that is open to medical center patients. If you receive your care elsewhere but are interested in pursuing some CAM therapies, there are certainly many reputable practitioners. Ask your caregivers and ask your cancer buddies for referrals. When you call a potential practitioner, ask her about her experience with cancer patients; you want someone who has this special expertise.

Have you used CAM therapies during or after breast cancer? Share your story in the BIDMC Cancer Community.