Finding the Best Complementary Therapy Options for You

A variety of complementary therapy options can help patients manage the side effects of cancer treatment. Not all options work or are safe for everyone, so it is important to consult your doctor before trying complementary therapies. It is imperative to note that any complementary therapy is not a cure or treatment for cancer itself. To help you find the best options for alleviating your side effects, consider the following complementary therapy options after discussing them with your healthcare provider.

Jump to:
Exercise
Acupuncture
Aromatherapy
Yoga
Massage
Meditation


Exercise

Women stretching

Exercise can help you manage many signs and symptoms during and after cancer treatment. Gentle exercise may help relieve fatigue and stress and help you sleep better. In particular, walking, yoga, biking, and Pilates can be enjoyable and beneficial. Many studies now show that an exercise program may help people with cancer live longer and improve their overall quality of life. If you haven’t already been exercising regularly, check with your doctor before you begin. Start slowly, adding more days and minutes of exercise as you go. Aim to work your way up to at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

Acupuncture

Woman receiving acupuncture

During an acupuncture treatment, a practitioner inserts tiny needles into your skin at precise points. Studies show acupuncture can help relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy and reduce certain types of pain in people with cancer. Acupuncture is safe if it’s performed by a licensed practitioner using sterile needles. Ask your doctor for names of trusted practitioners. Do not try acupuncture if you’re taking blood thinners or have low blood counts. 

Risks of Acupuncture:

  • Lymphedema: Anyone who has had lymph nodes removed from under the arm should not have needles inserted into that arm. If acupuncture is used on an arm, there is a risk of lymphedema, or swelling, caused by an excess of fluid in the arm. Talk to the acupuncturist about other treatment options for that area, such as aromatherapy.
  • Infection: It is standard practice to use disposable, single-use, sterile needles and to swab acupuncture areas with alcohol or a similar disinfectant before inserting needles. Infection is always a risk, but the risk is higher if the acupuncturist does not follow this process. People who have low white blood cell counts are at an increased risk of infection during acupuncture because this weakens their immune systems.
  • Bleeding for certain people: Due to the risk of bleeding, acupuncture should not be received by people who have bleeding disorders, low white blood cell counts, or who take blood thinners.
  • Reducing chemotherapy effectiveness with herbal supplement use: Although acupuncture sometimes incorporates the use of herbal supplements, you should NOT take herbal supplements during a course of chemotherapy. Herbal supplements can reduce its effectiveness. 

Aromatherapy (Essential Oils)

Aromatherapy and essential oils

Aromatherapy uses fragrant oils to calm the body and mind. Oils, infused with scents such as lavender, can be applied to your skin during a massage or added to bath water. Fragrant oils can also be diffused or heated to release their scents into the air. Aromatherapy may be helpful in relieving nausea, pain, and stress. This therapy can be performed by a practitioner, or you can do it on your own. Aromatherapy is safe, though oils applied to your skin can cause allergic reactions in some cases. People with estrogen-sensitive breast cancer should avoid applying large amounts of lavender oil and tea tree oil to the skin. 

Research in cancer patients has shown that aromatherapy may help relieve:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • High blood pressure 

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy reports that commonly used oils can have the following benefits:

  • Headache relief: Peppermint
  • Immune system stimulation: Eucalyptus, rosemary, tea tree
  • Muscle tension relief: Chamomile, clary sage, eucalyptus, peppermint, ylang-ylang
  • Indigestion relief: Peppermint
  • Relaxation: Ylang-ylang, geranium, lavender, lemon, clary sage, and chamomile
  • Respiratory problem relief: Eucalyptus 

For more information on essential oils and aromatherapy, click here.

Yoga

Woman doing yoga

Yoga combines stretching and strength exercises with deep and deliberate breathing. During a yoga session, you position your body in various poses that require bending, twisting, and stretching. There are many types of yoga, each with its own variations. Yoga can reduce stress, improve sleep, and reduce fatigue. Before beginning a yoga class, ask your doctor to recommend an instructor who regularly works with people with health concerns, such as cancer. Avoid yoga poses that cause pain. A good instructor can give you alternative poses that are safe for you.

Massage

Massage

During a massage, your practitioner kneads your skin, muscles, and tendons in an effort to relieve muscle tension and stress and promote relaxation. Massage can be light and gentle, or it can be deep with more pressure. 

Studies have found massage can be helpful in relieving pain in people with cancer. It may also help reduce anxiety, fatigue, and stress. Massage can be safe if you work with a knowledgeable massage therapist, and many cancer centers have massage therapists on staff, or your doctor can refer you to a massage therapist who regularly works with people who have cancer. 

Massage has been found to be helpful for:

  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Immune function

Important things to keep in mind before trying massage therapy:

  • If you’ve just had breast surgery, you should lie on your back for a massage until your doctor decides it is safe for you to lie on your stomach. Ask the massage therapist to avoid massaging near surgical scars.
  • Deep massage, or any type of massage that involves strong pressure, should NOT be used if you are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. 
  • If you’re currently undergoing radiation, your massage therapist should avoid touching any sensitive skin in the treatment area. 
  • If you have had lymph nodes removed, the massage therapist should only use very light touch on your affected arm and the area around the underarm.
  • If you have arm lymphedema, the massage therapist should avoid the affected arm and underarm areas completely. Your arm and underarm area should be treated by a different kind of massage called manual lymphatic drainage. 
  • If you have cancer in your bones or other bone diseases, such as osteoporosis, ask the massage therapist to use light pressure, rather than deep massage.
  • If your blood counts are very low, reschedule your appointment.

Meditation

Woman meditating

Meditation is a state of deep concentration when you focus your mind on your breath, an image, sound, or idea, such as a positive thought. When meditating, you might also do breathing or relaxation exercises. Meditation may help people with cancer by relieving anxiety and stress. You can meditate on your own for a few minutes once or twice a day, try a guided online meditation podcast, or take a class with an instructor.

In studies, meditation has been shown to help:

  • Reduce stress
  • Improve mood
  • Improve quality of sleep
  • Reduce fatigue

National Breast Cancer Foundation is here for you and your loved ones. Whether you need support, education, or help during treatment, we have a team dedicated to get you the help you deserve.


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9 Comments

  1. I do yoga and cardio alternate days and walk a mile each day. I feel like I’ve tolerated the chemotherapy well partly due do this. I teach a yoga class for seniors outside

  2. I found that acupuncture was incredibly helpful with the hot flashes that come with Tamoxifen, etc.

    Of course, you need to find a legitimate practitioner who understands the issue and has experience. I was fortunate that my radiation oncologist put me in touch with an RN who is also licensed in acupuncture, and was doing a study on how much it helps those hot flashes. (Spoiler alert: It does. A LOT)

  3. Hi It’s Lisa, Hope you’re doing well. I highly recommend acupuncture. It really helped me. I had physical therapy done, after my treatments were done. I had 24 treatments of radiation and had no chemo. My margins were clear. The worst thing for me, was the fatigue. It would stop me in my tracks. I am a 4 year Breast Cancer Survior. Lisa

  4. I walk at least 30 minutes a day , 5 days/week. Do some light exercises and have been following some diet changes. This has made me strong from within and feel disease free. Though I am yet to beat anxiety fully , shall practice meditation to overcome the thought of negativity.

  5. I have had a couple flareups of lymphedema in the last year post treatment. I have gone to a physical therapist that has been trained specifically for lymphedema care. It has helped reduce swelling and I recommend it. Utube videos about lymphedema self-massage. I don’t know a specific one to recommend.

  6. Hi,
    I am a 3 year Breast Cancer survivor and Yoga is my outlet for my fuggy brain and my anxiety moments . I did Physicals therapy during my chemo and helped me a lot, I walk outside enjoying the nature and her beauties ( even in the rain ). Discovering rock painting help me relax and gives me so much happiness . I did massages and now I want to try acupuncture and do more meditations .
    Namaste !

  7. I haven’t done anything except work and rest. I’m in a weird state of mind to where I worry about the cancer coming back, feeling exhausted and only going out for fun twice because I don’t want to go anywhere. I only had 6 weeks of treatment, but I don’t have the energy. I wish I didn’t have to work. I think that takes away from wanting to do other things for myself. I have pain and don’t know if it’s from getting up and down the table for radiation or it’s just my age or something else. I’d love to have physical therapy or massage. I’m glad others can take advantage of getting their “me” time and therapy to help them relax after what they have gone through.

  8. I’m an over achiever so I walk at least 8000 steps or swim/walk for two hours four or five days a week. This, in addition to weight watchers, has helped me lose 22 pounds so far. It has also helped a lot with fatigue but insomnia has continued. The insomnia may be from low estrogen and not able to do HRT due to cancer.

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