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Home Support Coping Living Better with Breast Cancer - The Natural Way

Living Better with Breast Cancer - The Natural Way

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If you are living with cancer, you are likely interested in ways to improve your quality of life without adding more drugs to the medicine cabinet. You are not alone. In fact, in one study of 115 breast cancer patients, 73% sought natural therapies outside their doctor’s office.1


Doctors refer to the collection of all natural therapies as Complimentary and Alternative Medicine or simply Integrative Medicine to signify that these practices can be an important part of what most people perceive as “traditional medicine.” In fact, talking with your physician about natural therapies you are considering is critical to ensure that you are receiving the best possible care. Together, you and your physician can decide which treatments are best.


Let’s be clear about one important point though. No alternative or natural therapy has been conclusively shown to decrease the spread of cancer or to prolong life.


However, there is excellent data, which demonstrates that natural treatments can improve the quality of life of someone living with cancer. In the Q&A session below, you can learn about some of the most well studied natural treatments for living better with breast cancer.



I’ve been living with breast cancer for a while now, and I’m feeling fatigued, stressed out, and depressed. Is there something I can do without taking another pill?



Absolutely. The well renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center completed a study with 1290 patients with cancer over a 3-year period and found that a variety of massage techniques significantly decreased some of the symptoms of living with cancer.2


They found that pain, fatigue, stress, nausea, and depression decreased by an average of 54% after receiving a 20-minute therapeutic massage.


The greatest effect was seen with Swedish and light touch massage techniques, although foot massages had an effect as well. In this study, researchers found that the beneficial effect continued over a 48-hour period.


It’s important to note however, this was not a placebo-controlled study and there is a chance that the massage itself was not responsible for the improved symptom control.


While massage might be a great option for some, it is not appropriate for everyone, particularly those that may have metastatic cancer that has traveled to their bones. Be sure to speak to your physician to discuss if massage might be a good option for you.



I’ve heard that aromatherapy can help improve my mood? Is this true?



You are correct. There is excellent evidence to show that some people may benefit from aromatherapy, particularly if it is used with massage.


In a study of 288 patients with cancer (over half with breast cancer), weekly 1 hour aromatherapy massage sessions for a month significantly improved anxiety and depression on several scoring systems used by physicians.3 While the effect did not last a full 10 weeks, patients did feel continued improvement after 6 weeks.


Unlike the first study we discussed, this group of researchers did use a placebo control, meaning the chances that the positive effect is due to the aromatherapy massage is much higher.


While aromatherapy massage may offer some benefits, individuals with asthma should be cautious as the aromas may worsen their asthma symptoms. As always, speak to your physician before starting a new therapy.



I have breast cancer and I’m looking to improve my sense of peace and well-being. I’m not really religious- is there something else I can try?



Certainly, there are many ways to improve your sense of peace and well-being. One technique, which is not based on a particular religious belief, is the practice of mindfulness meditation.


In a study of 229 women with breast cancer, half received 8 weeks of mindfulness based stress reduction training and the other half received the standard care from their physicians. The women trained in mindfulness meditation were encouraged to continue the practice for 40-45 minutes at home 6 or 7 days a week in addition to the weekly 2-hour classes.4


The women that practiced the mindfulness meditation had significantly decreased anxiety and depression 8 weeks after completing the therapy. They also had improved vigor, reduced fatigue, and less confusion. Both their physical and social functioning improved as well.


The women that practiced mindfulness meditation also had significantly decreased anger and improved emotional and functional well-being 12 weeks after completing the therapy.


Of course, before beginning any new treatment, be sure to discuss it with your physician. Together you can determine if adding mindfulness meditation to your treatment is right for you.


Brian D. Vander Werf

MD Candidate, Class of 2013

University of Arizona College of Medicine



1.      Shen J, Andersen R, Albert PS, et al. Use of complementary/alternative therapies by women with advanced-stage breast cancer. BMC Complement Altern Med 2002; 2:8.

2.      Cassileth BR, Vickers AJ. Massage therapy for symptom control: outcome study at a major cancer center. J Pain Symptom Manage 2004; 28:244.

3.      Wilkinson SM, Love SB, Westcombe AM, et al. Effectiveness of aromatherapy massage in the management of anxiety and depression in patients with cancer: a multicenter randomized controlled trial. J Clin Oncol 2007; 25:532.

4.      Hoffman CJ, et al. Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Mood, Breast and Endocrine-Related Quality of Life, and Well-Being in Stage 0-III Breast Cancer: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Clin Oncol 2012; 30: 1335.