As you begin to explore your options for treatment, you will undoubtedly
hear about things like acupuncture, antioxidants, macrobiotic diets,
imagery, aromatherapy, as well as other complementary or alternative
It's extremely important that you understand the difference between
so-called conventional or traditional medicine, and complementary
or alternative therapies.
Conventional treatment is what is currently accepted by reputable
healthcare providers. It is based on decades of sound medical research,
and represents the best that Western medicine has to offer today.
Complementary treatments may or may not have been rigorously evaluated.
They are widely and successfully used to relieve side effects of cancer
treatment, and to enhance the quality of life.
Alternative therapies, by contrast, have no medically sound foundation,
and represent a dangerous temptation for those who may be skeptical
about traditional medical treatment.
Consult your healthcare team before trying any type of complementary
therapy to make sure it won't interfere with your treatment. And certainly
have an informed discussion with them if you are contemplating embarking
on an alternative course of treatment.
Practitioners refer to these therapies as complementary, rather than
alternative, because they are to be used only in conjunction with—not
instead of—the treatment recommended by your doctors. You still
need surgery, or chemotherapy or whatever other conventional treatment
is right for you.
There is a wide variety of complementary techniques, some based
on principles adopted from other specialties (for example, relaxation),
from Oriental medicine (acupuncture) from Indian medicine (yoga),
or even from ancient Egyptian culture (aromatherapy.)
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Many complementary therapies are based on the principle
of mind/body connection. For centuries, people have believed that
there is a connection between the state of the mind and the health
of the body. How this connection worked, however, was never quite
Recently, scientists have identified chemicals, called neurotransmitters,
by which nerve cells communicate with one another. Neurotransmitters
are also involved in the control of emotions. For example, antidepressant
medications increase the amount of norepinephrine and serotonin in
the spaces between nerve cells. These same neurotransmitters have
effects elsewhere in the body, affecting heart rate and blood pressure,
and may even influence the activity of cells in the immune system.
Changes in the state of the nervous system which can occur because
of stress or lack of social support, can influence many organ systems.
For example, it has been found that people under stress are more likely
to develop colds.
Anxiety, grief, stress, and fear of the unknown all seem to have
an impact on the body. Learning to cope with these emotions, using
a wide variety of approaches—such as meditation and visualization,
spiritual support, and participation in support groups—may help
speed your recovery, and benefit your health.
Meditation has been shown to produce physiological responses such
as a decrease in blood pressure, respiration rate, and overall metabolism—all
of which contribute to reducing stress on our minds and bodies. Guided
imagery or visualization (for example, visualizing natural killer
cells gobbling up cancers cells like in the game Pac-Man) can also
be used with meditation. There is no claim that meditation and visualization
cure cancer, but studies have proven that a combination of these techniques
can reduce pain and other uncomfortable side effects of cancer treatment.
To demystify the terms "meditation" and "visualization",
many physicians simply refer to these techniques as "stress reduction,"
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Since prehistoric times, prayer has been one of the most common ways
of dealing with pain and illness in all civilizations. Today many
accept that some form of spiritual support is a basic human need.
Prayer, laying on of hands, and many forms of spiritual imagery or
inner dialogue have helped patients find the higher strength within
themselves to cope with breast cancer and other illness.
Many cancer patients rely on their spiritual experiences and established
religious traditions to regain control and gather additional strength
to battle cancer. Even those who have little or no connection with
religion often find themselves moved by the "spiritual emergency"
Laughter can stimulate endorphins—chemicals that act
like opiates in the brain. You might find humor and laughter emotionally
healing. In addition, giving yourself time not to think about your
cancer can have a wonderfully invigorating effect.
While some enjoy standup comedians, others may prefer Marx Brothers
movies or sitcom reruns, such as "I Love Lucy." While undergoing
cancer treatment, writer Norman Cousins discovered that ten minutes
of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect that would give
him at least two hours of pain-free sleep.
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There's still a great deal of controversy on the subject of nutrition
and its effect on breast cancer. So far, there's no scientific data
to prove one diet better than another for breast cancer treatment,
although there is some evidence that a low fat diet may decrease the
incidence of recurrence of breast cancer in post-menopausal women.
Most physicians recommend that patients simply follow good nutrition,
with particular emphasis on protein and vitamins during chemotherapy
treatment. A consultation with a nutritionist will help you learn
more about your particular needs.
Macrobiotic diets emphasize whole grains, miso soup, fresh vegetables
and beans, with little fruit and no sugar. Special diets such as these
may someday prove to be effective for patients with certain types
of cancer, but more scientific research is needed in this area.
The majority of herbal therapies are based on the belief that they
improve organ function. There is increasing evidence from Asian and
European countries that some herbs can be effective in fighting cancer.
Common herbs and medicinal plants used for breast cancer include
Astragalus root, burdock root, garlic, green tea, licorice root
and a variety of others.
Some herbal preparations are extremely potent and may be harmful.
Practitioners should dispense herbs on an individualized basis in
accordance with each patient's needs. You should always consult your
healthcare professional before beginning herbal therapy, since some
preparations may interfere with your treatment.
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Many biological processes in the body lead to the formation of toxic
products such as toxic lipid peroxides, which can damage DNA in cells,
leading to cancer. Vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene are "anti-oxidant"
vitamins commonly used to neutralize these potentially toxic products.
In addition, elements such as selenium and copper may be useful, in
trace amounts only, to facilitate the defense against toxic peroxides.
It is generally thought by radiation oncologists that antioxidants
may interfere with the beneficial effects of radiation, and should
be used only with the approval of your radiation oncologist.
Talk with your physician or nutritionist, or contact the National
Cancer Institure or the American Cancer Society to find out about
the latest recommendations on the topic of antioxidants and vitamins.
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Acupuncture and homeopathy are based on the concept that there is
a life force within our body organs. This life force—an animating
factor—maintains the body in a state of health, and predisposes
us to disease when it is unbalanced.
Acupuncture is a technique, first developed in ancient China, which
involves insertion and manipulation of needles at specific points
in the body to balance the life force.
The theory behind acupuncture is that there are special meridian
points on the body that are connected to internal organs. Vital energy
flows along the meridian lines, and diseases are caused by an imbalance
of this flow. Normal flow of vital energy is restored by inserting
needles at the meridian points. Current research studies suggest that
acupuncture needles may work by triggering the release of natural
In China, acupuncture has long been used for pain relief, and for
treatment of ailments such as arthritis, hypertension, and ulcers.
It is now also used as anesthesia during childbirth and some types
of surgery. Acupuncture has been used with some success by a number
of Western physicians, to relieve nausea, pain or other symptoms associated
Practitioners of homeopathy believe that minute, highly diluted doses
of a medicine treat the life force—not the physical force—of
organs such as the liver, kidneys, or intestines. Although homeopathy
is questioned by most American physicians, it is widely used in Europe
Reputable medical practitioners believe that before anything can be
safely used as a treatment, it must undergo rigorous testing and evaluation,
using large numbers of patients, and objective analysis of the results.
But from time to time, a new product suddenly appears, and is promoted
as the new alternative to standard medical treatment for cancer. Most
of the time, the claims are founded on a few poorly documented cases
of alleged "cures," and sometimes on nothing but a promoter's
greed or ignorance.
An example is laetril—a substance made from apricot pits,
that was presented as a cure for cancer, based on the claim that cyanide
contained in the apricot pits killed cancer cells. Scientific studies,
and personal experiences of patients who tried the treatment on their
own, have proven laetril to be useless or even harmful, and there
have been reports of deaths from cyanide poisoning.
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