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Complementary treatments for breast cancer

Many people with cancer in the UK use some sort of complementary therapy during their illness.

There is no evidence to prove any complementary approaches prevent or cure cancer. However, some people find they may help with side effects of cancer or cancer treatment.

Some people also find that complementary therapies give them a more active role in their overall treatment.

It is important to let the breast cancer care team know about alternative approaches being considered in case of interactions with prescribed treatments.

Alternative and complementary treatments

Most complementary and alternative treatments are forms of holistic medicine. That means they seek to restore health and balance to the ‘whole person’ - not just your body. They focus on your mind, emotions and spirit.

Complementary medical systems include:

  • Traditional Chinese medicine, which uses acupuncture, t’ai chi, qigong, herbs, and massage, seeks to unblock internal lines of energy called meridians. These are believed to run through the body to balance its Yin and Yang (negative and positive) forces.
  • Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient system from India that's based on three doshas, or mind/body types. It seeks to harmonise mind, body and spirit through foods, meditation and massage.
  • Naturopathy and homoeopathy use herbs, botanicals and other natural products to help the body heal itself.

Individual complementary treatments such as acupuncture can be researched with Western scientific protocols, however entire complementary systems cannot.

Although complementary therapies are usually harmless, they may not be safe for all conditions or when combined with other medications. Always tell your doctor and make sure you use a qualified therapist. They should not delay conventional treatment.


Acupuncture is one of the better-researched complementary treatments for cancer. A 2008 study showed that acupuncture relieved the hot flushes caused by the anti-cancer drug tamoxifen by 50% in women with breast cancer. Other benefits may include decreased vomiting, pain and fatigue. Cancer Research UK supported a trial investigating whether acupuncture could help women with fatigue after breast cancer treatment and found that it could.

Women with lymph nodes removed under one arm should not have acupuncture needles inserted into that arm. That's because there is a risk of swelling and excess fluid, a condition called lymphoedema. Women with severely weakened immune systems are also at higher risk of infection.

What is reflexology?

Cancer Research UK says reflexology is one of the most popular types of complementary therapies in the UK among people with cancer. Reflexologists apply pressure and massage to areas on your feet and hands, working on ‘reflex areas’ that match every other part of your body.

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