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. "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). The site also lists results from recent trials.Search for clinical trials by ZIP code or type of cancer Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:04

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