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

Acupuncture, Ginseng, and MushroomsWhen Marilyn Stillwell, 50, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she felt overwhelmed by the journey she was about to take with her body. "I had a three-centimeter malignant tumor in my left breast and had to undergo rapid-fire treatments: lumpectomy, eight rounds of chemo, and 33 radiation sessions," she says. Stillwell knew this regimen would give her the best shot at survival. But when she studied her condition online and talked to doctors, she decided to make weekly visits to an acupuncturist, too. (She’d used acupuncture in the past to treat stress-related backaches.) The results, she says, were immediate. "People don’t think of acupuncture as relaxing, because of the whole needle thing, but it actually provides tremendous stress relief. It helped heal my anxiety early on and counteracted the draining effects of chemo and radiation," Stillwell says. "I was able to work full-time. I had little fatigue, almost no nausea, and it really helped with the neuropathy, the tingling chemo caused in my fingers and toes."Thousands of women use alternative therapies to supplement conventional breast cancer treatments. The growing interest in these therapies has led to an increasing amount of research into their effectiveness. Although alternative treatments do not replace conventional ones, they provide new options for relieving the physical and emotional symptoms related to the disease. Here, some of the most promising treatments under study.Acupuncture to Reduce Chemo and Radiation Side Effects "Research has found that acupuncture is extremely helpful for counteracting chemo and radiation side effects such as nausea," says Patrick Mansky, MD, a research oncologist and clinician at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, in Bethesda, Maryland. "It may also help to alleviate postsurgical pain."In one five-year study, 104 breast cancer patients who received electro-acupuncture treatments along with high-dose chemotherapy had less nausea than even the women using standard anti-nausea medications. (In traditional acupuncture, practitioners stimulate needles by hand; electro-acupuncture sends a low-voltage electrical current through the needles.) Memorial Sloan-Kettering researchers are studying acupuncture to reduce hot flashes and chronic fatigue in breast cancer patients.Ginseng as an Anti-Tumor AgentGinseng has been used as a tonic in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, and it’s popular as a treatment to boost immunity and increase energy. Of the two types — red and white — used for medicinal purposes, white holds promise as a way to reduce emotional stress and has often been used to boost the immune system; it may also have anti-tumor effects.Ginseng root contains more than 30 active compounds, some of which have been found to have anti-tumor effects (in cell and animal studies). Several animal studies found that ginseng inhibited the growth of both estrogen-positive and estrogen-negative tumor cells. Researchers at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, in Nashville, recently analyzed data from the 1,455-person Shanghai Breast Cancer Study. "Twenty-seven percent of patients used ginseng prior to diagnosis, and 63 percent used it afterward," says Xiao-Ou Shu, MD, PhD, the study’s lead author. "Those who used it before diagnosis had the highest survival rates. Use after diagnosis was related to better quality of life, with patients citing fewer psychological issues, such as depression." Shu is now preparing to conduct a follow-up study of 4,000 patients.Maitake Mushrooms to Boost Immunity "While there has been a great deal of mushroom use in the East, there has been very little research into if or how chemicals within the mushrooms work," says Barrie Cassileth, PhD, whose botanical research center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering is conducting the first U.S. clinical trial on maitake, a medicinal mushroom extract. "These mushrooms contain beta-glucans, substances that enhance immune function in an unknown way."For the past five years, Sloan-Kettering researchers have conducted test-tube and lab studies using liquid maitake extract. This fall, a human study will be under way. Some oncologists feel so confident about the possible advantages that they’re already recommending mushroom extract supplements to their patients, Cassileth says.

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