Can Alternative Therapies Help Treat Breast Cancer?

New research says yes: acupuncture, ginseng, mushrooms, mistletoe, yoga, and other natural remedies can help you through cancer treatment and maybe even speed your recovery. Here, the health boosters that science is taking seriously in the fight against breast cancer.

By Kristyn Kusek Lewis
"They don’t appear likely to interfere with chemo and radiation, unlike some herbs, which we suspect can impede effectiveness," says Donald Abrams, MD, chief of the oncology division at San Francisco General Hospital. Mistletoe and YogaMistletoe to Stimulate Immunity For more than 80 years, extract from the mistletoe plant (Viscum album L.) has been used in Europe to treat cancer. According to Mansky, whose team has been studying the herb, lab studies show mistletoe kills cancer cells and stimulates the immune system.Mansky is leading a multiyear study to determine the safety, toxicity, and immune system effects of the herb in conjunction with a standard chemotherapy drug, gemcitabine; 34 cancer patients (a third of whom have breast cancer) have enrolled so far. Results are expected by the end of the year. Yoga to Speed Recovery and Increase Survival Rates There’s more to a sun salutation than a good stretch. In fact, yoga has so much potential for cancer care that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently awarded $2.4 million dollars to the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center for a study on how yoga helps patients grapple with the stress of a cancer diagnosis. "Decades of research shows that our emotional processes can influence our immunity and ability to deal with illness," says Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, MD. Anderson’s director of integrative medicine. "In theory, if you’re able to decrease stress and negative thoughts while you’re going through cancer, you get your body and mind into a healthier balance and you’re better suited to deal with the disease. Women who add yoga to their treatment report less depression and fewer anxiety-related symptoms like sleep disturbances and intrusive thoughts."Yoga may also have important physical benefits. In a follow-up study of 61 women during treatment, half were assigned to a twice-weekly yoga class. After six weeks, the yoga group rated themselves as having more energy and a sense of well-being than the group who did not do yoga. "But we saw the biggest difference in physical functioning," Cohen says, "the ability to perform everyday tasks like carrying a grocery bag or walking."The form of yoga used in the study — Tibetan yoga — made a difference. "I had been to a yoga class three years before I entered the trial, but this time, instead of ‘pretzel poses,’ we focused on gentle movements and meditation," says study participant Dianne Landsen, 59. "When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s hard not to think about death. But the kind of mental conditioning I got from the yoga really helped me. Every time I walked out of a session, I had a sense that everything was really going to be all right." Much of the current research on fitness and breast cancer is focused on mind-body practices like yoga and tai chi, but any exercise has benefits. "Physical activity lowers the level of the stress hormone cortisol," Cohen says. "We believe this gives the immune system a boost that ultimately improves survival rates."Indeed, there’s research showing that patients who exercise three hours a week have higher survival rates than their inactive counterparts. Why? "Theories range from beneficial hormonal changes to weight reduction, which can affect both your initial risk and the recurrence of the disease," says Barrie Cassileth, PhD, chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York, who is beginning an international study on fitness and breast cancer. Join an Alternative Medicine Clinical Trial When you join a clinical trial, it helps us all. These resources can guide you to complementary breast-cancer clinical trials seeking participants. (If you’re enrolled in a standard drug study, you may not be eligible for an alternative study.)The National Institutes of Health This Web site lists every NIH-funded trial in the United States, along with details on the study setup and status.Learn more about NIH-funded clinical trials The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine On this site, you can search by either the condition or the therapy.Learn more about NCCAM clinical trials The National Cancer Institute Search this site for trials around the country by cancer type, stage of disease, and treatment category (for example, diagnostic care or emotional support).

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