Q & A: Which Complementary Therapies Work Best for Women With Breast Cancer?

Female instructor leading a “chair yoga” class with female patients seated with back to camera and arms stretched to side.

Yoga is one of several mind-body therapies that can reduce anxiety and treat symptoms of depression.

Studies indicate that many people with cancer use complementary therapies. Their reasons may include relieving stress and anxiety, reducing pain or discomfort, or improving their sense of well-being. The category includes everything from taking herbs to practicing yoga and more. Considering this range, there remains an important question: Which complementary treatments actually work?

Gary Deng, Medical Director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Integrative Medicine Service, and his colleagues conducted an extensive analysis of more than 1,000 publications on the effectiveness of various complementary therapies in women with breast cancer. Their findings were published recently in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

We asked Dr. Deng to provide an overview of which therapies are supported by solid evidence and which should be regarded with caution.

Which complementary therapies seem to be most effective?

We found the strongest evidence of benefit from mind-body therapies, such as meditation, yoga, and stress-reduction techniques. Meditation in particular seems to work well for reducing anxiety, treating symptoms of depression, and improving overall quality of life. Music therapy, yoga, and massage also seem to help with these symptoms. In addition to being effective, these therapies are low risk, so there is little downside to using them. They should be considered as a routine part of care for most people with cancer.

We found the strongest evidence of benefit from mind-body therapies, such as meditation, yoga, and stress-reduction techniques.
Gary E. Deng integrative medicine specialist

Which treatments are backed up by weaker data?

For acupuncture, the evidence is not as strong, except to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. Many studies do show that acupuncture is helpful with those symptoms. There seems to be insufficient information supporting the use of botanical natural products, such as herbs or dietary supplements, for specific symptoms. For example, ginseng is widely believed to alleviate cancer-related fatigue. There has been only one randomized trial showing a benefit though, and the evidence otherwise is not strong. There may be situations in which nothing else works, and a doctor or patient could consider using these products. But any dietary supplement could cause adverse effects or harmful drug interactions, so people with cancer should be very cautious.

Why did this study focus on women with breast cancer?

That’s where most of the data are from. Women with breast cancer tend to be especially heavy users of integrative medicines and complementary therapies to manage the side effects of chemotherapy or hormone therapy. Because of this, a large number of clinical trials studying complementary therapies were done in this group. We may study people with other cancers in the future.

How can people who have never practiced mind-body therapies, such as meditation, get started?

We understand that something like meditation can be difficult for a person who has never tried it. At MSK, we offer meditation instruction. We have a class called Meditation 101 for those with no experience who want to learn the fundamentals of mindfulness. Meditation 201 is for people who want to deepen their practice and get more benefit from it. We also offer a workshop called Yoga for Sleep. It gives people tools to enjoy naturally sound sleep and set healthy bedtime habits. Apart from these, we have a variety of exercise and movement classes and workshops, including Tai Chi and Qigong.

How can someone stay informed about which complementary therapies actually work?

Our Integrative Medicine Service web page serves as a clearinghouse of information about complementary therapies. For example, our About Herbs, Botancials & Other Products section is a fantastic tool for the public and for healthcare professionals to find out what research shows about many types of dietary supplements.

MSK has been a leading center for complementary therapies since we established the Integrative Medicine Service in 1999. The array of programs and services we provide has grown, and we conduct research and clinical trials to further the field. People with cancer should know there are a lot of complementary therapies that can alleviate symptoms. They also need to be empowered with information to use these therapies wisely.