Complementary therapies are techniques that may help you to cope with breast cancer treatment and manage the psychological, social and physical burdens treatment can entail.
Complementary therapies should not be used as a replacement or alternative to conventional and scientifically proven medicine.
However, if they help you cope with side effects, relieve some symptoms and improve your quality of life then they can be a valuable addition to your treatment programme. You may like to check out Professor Shaun Holt's book, Complementary Therapies for Cancer - What works, what doesn't ... and how to tell the difference (Craig Potton Publishing, 2010) for a guide on complementary techniques.
Many women like to explore a variety of options, and make their decision about which complementary therapies they will use after researching the options and being fully informed. Two useful websites that you may wish to explore as you embark on your own journey of research and education are:
- The US National Cancer Institute has a section on complementary medicines with research reviews that are updated regularly
- Cancer Research UK also has a section on complementary cancer approaches.
Always check with your doctor before beginning a complementary therapy. Some complementary medicines or supplements can interfere with your anti-cancer medicines. BCAC advises against “alternative medication” as a replacement for conventional medication. These "alternative" medications have not been scientifically validated or proven to be effective in fighting cancer and could interfere with your conventional treatment programme.
Some common complementary therapies include:
- Keeping a journal
- Rongoā Māori
- Music and art therapy
Acupuncture involves a practitioner inserting very thin needles into your body. Acupuncture is based on traditional Chinese medicine and needles are placed in parts of the body thought to improve the body’s vital energy or ‘Qi’.
Research has shown that acupuncture may stimulate the nervous system to release natural pain killers. Some studies have shown it may be effective in helping:
- Nausea and vomiting
Massage involves manipulating the soft tissue of the body and many people find it relaxing and beneficial for relieving stress. Some studies have shown that it is helpful in relieving:
Yoga is a form of traditional Indian exercise that focuses on the body and the mind. It involves stretching exercises and may be helpful in:
- Strengthening muscles
- Reducing stress
- Reducing fatigue.
Other forms of exercise can also be beneficial for many women. BCAC member group, the PINC Cancer Rehabilitation Programme, offers exercise programmes that help to strengthen the body and focus the mind following breast cancer treatment.
Meditation, mindfulness and self-compassion
Meditation is a mind exercise that involves focusing on a specific thing so that all extraneous thoughts are put out of the mind.
Meditation has been found to help:
- Reduce stress
- Improve sleep
- Reduce fatigue.
Mindfulness and self-compassion are meditative practices aimed at improving wellbeing by training the mind to adopt thoughts that help us to deal with anxiety and emotions. BCAC member group, Mindfulness Aotearoa, offers training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction which research has shown can help to reduce emotional distress, anxiety and fatigue. See their website or contact email@example.com - 021 22 77 069.
Some useful American websites to explore are:
- Meditation, Tara Brach
- Self Compassion, Kirsten Neff
- Mindfulness, Meditation, Jack Kornfield.
Counselling involves talking to a trained professional about your emotions and behaviours. Many people may find counselling helps them to:
- Relieve stress
- Focus on the positive
- Deal with negative emotions.
A list of counsellors offering services to those with breast cancer can be found here.
Keeping a journal
This involves writing down an account of the thoughts, feelings and events you experience. It has been shown that this can help to:
- Improve emotional wellbeing
- Improve physical health.
BCAC’s Step by Step support pack includes a journal for recording your thoughts and feelings, with space for writing and drawing. Order your pack here.
Rongoā Māori is traditional Māori healing in which an understanding of the events leading to ill health and its impacts are addressed through a range of culturally bounded responses, including rakau rongoā (native flora herbal preparations), mirimiri (massage) and karakia (prayer).
The Ministry of Health works with Māori traditional healing practitioners to support Rongoā Māori, and currently funds 30 providers across the country to deliver rongoā services. More information can be found here.
Music and art therapy
This involves using music or art to express yourself and your feelings. For some people this outlet can help to:
- Reduce anxiety
- Improve emotional wellbeing.
BCAC member group Alleviate Ltd offers highly professional and innovative creative arts therapy programmes and one-on-one therapy for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
For those who are religious or subscribe to a form of spirituality, prayer can be a useful way to:
- Relieve anxiety
- Enhance emotional wellbeing.