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Treatments & Side Effects

Complementary Therapies

Complementary therapies work alongside conventional medicine and are often used to reduce side effects.  It’s important to discuss with your oncologist any complementary therapies that you are considering.  While some can be helpful, there are many available that can cause serious, life-threatening toxicities.

Acupuncture - The dictionary defines acupuncture as “the insertion of the tips of needles into the skin at specific points for the purpose of treating various disorders by stimulating nerve impulses.”  This ancient practice is the subject of much modern research, which suggests that acupuncture can be useful in alleviating side effects such as fatigue, hot flashes, nausea, vomiting, and pain. If you have lymphedema or lymph node surgery, however, you should not have needles inserted into the affected arm.

Art therapy can help you express your feelings about breast cancer, especially those that are hard to talk about.  This therapy can help reduce stress, depression, and fatigue, and can increase coping skills. Through painting, drawing, sculpture, or other types of artwork, you will journey through an emotionally healing process, guided by the art therapist.  You don’t have to be a great artist to benefit. To find an art therapist, inquire at your cancer centre or the Canadian Art Therapy Association website

Dietary supplements have not been shown to treat or cure cancer.  Some dietary supplements can interfere with prescription medication and breast cancer treatment, affecting their efficacy or potentially causing dangerous toxicities. Supplements may help with side effects, but should be used with caution. It's VERY important that you talk to your healthcare team about supplements you're thinking about taking to ensure it is what you need and does not impact your treatments.

Exercise - See the Living with Breast Cancer section for information on how exercise can help.

Hypnotherapy, according to the Hypnotherapy Directory, is the use of positive suggestions and visualizations delivered during a trance state to bring about subconscious change to our thoughts, feelings and behaviour.  It can be very helpful for dealing with the side effects of breast cancer treatment.  Benefits may include a reduction in pain, fatigue, insomnia, nausea, hot flashes, anxiety, and depression, and increased feeling of calmness and a sense of control. To find a certified hypnotherapist in your area, contact the Association of Registered Clinical Hypnotherapists (ARCH) or the Canadian Hypnosis Association.

Massage therapy can help with side effects of breast cancer treatment such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, and pain. If you are undergoing chemotherapy, radiation or are healing from breast surgery massage may not be recommended for you. If you are looking to use massage therapy consult with your healthcare team first and seek out a registered massage therapist with experience treating people living with breast cancer.  

Meditation may help reduce stress, improve moods, improve quality of sleep, and reduce fatigue.  There are many audio and online resources that can help you get started with meditation or you may want to consult a trainer to help you learn how to meditate. 

Music therapy - In breast cancer care, music therapy is often used to address quality of life and perception of pain. It provides support around emotional, psychological, and spiritual challenges that breast cancer may bring. There are diverse ways to practice music therapy.  Some examples of what music therapists might offer clients on a breast cancer journey are: therapeutic song writing, instrument playing, guided imagery to music, voice work, singing and/or playing significant songs, creating supportive playlists, and improvisation. For more information or to find a music therapist, connect with the Canadian Association for Music Therapy at www.musictherapy.ca.

Naturopathic therapy - According to Cancer Treatment Centres of America, Naturopathy “is an approach to health care that uses natural, non-toxic therapies to treat the whole person and encourage the self-healing process.”  Naturopathic therapies include nutrition and supplementation, exercise, botanical medicine, lifestyle counseling, and acupuncture.  It is important to remember “natural” does NOT mean safe.  If you are working with both a naturopathic practitioner and medical doctor, be sure to let each of them know what treatments the other is prescribing.

Qigong “is a mind-body practice that improves one's mental and physical health by integrating postures, movement, breathing techniques, and focused intention,” say practitioners.  A study by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center found that qigong may relieve stress and depression, improve quality of life, and also have some physiological benefit for breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy.

Writing therapy - Journaling may be able help with physical and emotional aspects of breast cancer.  You can use your journal to record thoughts and feelings, including hopes of recovery and fears of dying.  Your journal can help you gain perspective, since you’ll be able to compare how you felt months ago to how you feel now.

Yoga may improve physical functioning, reduce fatigue, reduce stress, improve sleep, and improve quality of life in breast cancer patients. Be sure the instructor is qualified to work with breast cancer patients.  Consult with your doctor before starting any exercise regime.

Complementary therapies may ease side effects but may also interfere with cancer treatment.  Be sure to consult your doctor if you’re thinking about trying one of these therapies.  For more information, visit the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre or Inspire Health. You can also contact your local cancer treatment agency’s psychosocial services department to learn about complementary therapy programs offered in your area.

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