Many people use complementary therapies (such as acupuncture and prayer) during or after their breast cancer care. You may also hear the terms integrative therapies or complementary health approaches.
Complementary therapies are used to relieve side effects and improve quality of life. They should not be used to treat breast cancer itself.
Below, you’ll find detailed information on some popular therapies as well as an overview of issues related to complementary therapies.
We also offer Spanish language versions of the complementary and integrative therapies.
Complementary therapies are not considered standard medical treatments (such as surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy). However, they may be used to:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates about 30 percent of U.S. adults have used a complementary therapy in the past year .
Among breast cancer survivors in the U.S., estimates range from about 15 percent to more than 80 percent [2-6].
Complementary therapies are different from alternative therapies.
Complementary and integrative therapies are used in addition to standard medical treatments.
Alternative therapies are used instead of standard medical treatments.
Standard medical treatments have been proven to reduce the chances of dying from breast cancer. Alternative therapies are not proven treatments and are not recommended.
Complementary therapies can be grouped into categories that may helpful when you talk with your health care provider.
Categories include :
Safety is a concern with complementary therapies.
Unlike standard medical treatments, many complementary therapies are not regulated by the federal government and may not have quality controls.
All decisions about complementary therapies should be made jointly with your health care provider.
Few complementary therapies have been studied with the same scientific rigor as standard medicine. While some are safe, others should be avoided.
For example, some therapies can [8-13]:
Some therapies are safe at lower doses, but harmful in higher amounts.
Talking with your provider before using any complementary therapy helps avoid problems. Your provider can help you understand the risks and benefits of the therapy and whether it might be right for you.
With dietary supplements, there’s no guarantee that what’s on the label is what’s inside.
Choosing supplements from known, reputable manufacturers may increase the likelihood:
One way to check that a manufacturer follows good practices in preparing supplements is the “USP verified” stamp on the label. For more on this, or to see if a supplement has been USP verified, visit the USP website.
A license to practice shows a practitioner has passed the licensing requirements in his or her field.
However, seeing a licensed practitioner isn’t a guarantee you’ll get good, safe care.
Learn more about finding a complementary therapy provider.
Although "natural" products can be appealing, "natural" does not mean "safe" (think about poison ivy and poisonous mushrooms).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limited oversight on dietary supplements and does not regulate them as strictly as medications.
If the FDA has evidence a “natural” product is harmful, it can pull the food or supplement from the market or issue a warning.
To see if any safety alerts have been issued on a product, visit the FDA website.
No complementary therapy can prevent or cure cancer.
If a complementary therapy makes this type of claim, it’s a sign that it’s a scam.
If you feel a product or therapy is making a false claim, check the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)'s Cancer Treatment Scams website for any consumer warnings. Your health care provider is also a good source for this information.
The quality of the scientific evidence behind different complementary therapies varies. Few have been studied with the same scientific rigor as standard medicine.
For some therapies, there is good evidence on safety and effectiveness.
For many others, data are limited, making it hard to draw conclusions.
While there are many ways to assess the quality of the scientific evidence, most look at:
Together, these basic factors form the weight of evidence behind a therapy and help answer important questions about its safety and effectiveness.
Some types of research studies hold more weight than others when it comes to the strength of their results.
In general, randomized controlled trials are considered the best type of study for learning whether a complementary therapy is safe and effective. Prospective cohort studies and case-control studies also can be used to assess complementary therapies.
Study quality and study size (the number of people taking part in a study) are also important factors in assessing results.
The results of a small, poorly designed randomized controlled trial may be weaker than those of a larger, well-designed cohort or case-control study.
Learn more about different types of research studies.
Learn more about study size.
The more studies on a complementary therapy, the more evidence there is to draw conclusions about its risks and benefits.
The type, quality and size of the studies are also important.
One large, well-designed randomized controlled trial can be more compelling than 20 small studies.
In general, though, the more studies there are on a therapy, the better health care providers and researchers are able to draw conclusions about its safety and effectiveness.
Whether or not studies tend to show the same results is important in weighing the evidence on a complementary therapy.
Evidence is more compelling when most studies have similar results.
When the results from some studies show a therapy is effective and the results from other studies do not, it's hard to draw conclusions.
It's similar to asking three friends what they thought of a movie. If all three liked it, you have evidence the movie was good. If one friend liked it, one didn't and one thought it was OK, it's hard to know what to think.
While some complementary therapies are safe, others should be avoided.
Learn more about safety and complementary therapies.
Any decisions about complementary therapy use should be made jointly with your health care provider. Some complementary therapies can [8-12]:
Talking with your provider before using any complementary therapy helps avoid problems and ensure all the risks and benefits to your health are carefully considered.
Learn more about safety and complementary therapies.
Discuss your use of complementary therapies at each office visit. Use your symptom diary to talk about how you've been feeling while using the therapy.
The following questions may help you start a discussion with your provider:
Learn more about talking with your healthcare provider.
Learn more about clinical trials.
Once you've talked with your health care provider and decided a complementary therapy may be right for you, the next step is finding a practitioner who specializes in the therapy.
The best place to start is your health care provider. Your provider may be able to refer you to a complementary therapy practitioner in your area.
Physicians and other providers (such as nurses, physical therapists and psychologists) can offer many complementary therapies.
For example, physical therapists may offer massage therapy and nurses may use reiki and therapeutic touch.
Finding a licensed complementary therapy practitioner is a good step. While a license doesn't guarantee good, safe care, it does mean a practitioner has passed licensing requirements in the field.
The websites below can be used to check the licensing status of many complementary therapy practitioners:
National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM)http://www.nccaom.org
Federation of Chiropractic Licensing Boards http://www.fclb.org/
American Association of Naturopathic Physicians http://www.naturopathic.org/
National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork http://www.ncbtmb.org/
American Massage Therapy Association http://www.amtamassage.org
Before getting any treatments, it's a good idea to have a brief meeting with a complementary therapy practitioner and discuss:
If you are not comfortable with what you hear, or feel things didn't seem quite right, go somewhere else.
Don't settle just because you've taken the time and effort to find and meet with a practitioner. Keep looking until you find one that’s right for you.
Taking part in a clinical trial gives you a chance to use a complementary therapy in a well-monitored setting.
It’s important to discuss joining a clinical trial with your health care provider. Your provider can discuss the benefits and any risks with you.
These websites can help you find clinical trials of complementary therapies:
Learn more about clinical trials.
Our commitment to research
At Susan G. Komen©, we are committed to saving lives by meeting the most critical needs in our communities and investing in breakthrough research to prevent and cure breast cancer. Our Research Program is an essential driving force for achieving this mission. Since our inception in 1982, Komen has provided funding to support research grants that have greatly expanded our knowledge of breast cancer and helped us understand that breast cancer is not just a single disease but many diseases, unique to each individual. Going forward, our commitment to research will contribute significantly to our ability to achieve our bold goal of reducing the current number of breast cancer deaths in the U.S. by 50 percent by 2026.
To date, Komen has provided more than $920M to researchers in 48 states and 21 countries to support research that has resulted in a better understanding of breast cancer; earlier detection; personalized, less invasive treatments for what was once a “one-treatment-fits-all” disease; and improvements in both quality of life and survival rates.
Learn more about our continuing investment in research and the exciting research that we are funding, because nothing would make us happier than ending breast cancer forever.
Facts For Life: Integrative and Complementary Therapies
Research Fast Facts
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