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Breast cancer and its treatments can increase the likelihood of anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, pain, stress and more. To subdue these negative effects, up to 86 percent of people with breast cancer turn to complementary therapies such as acupuncture, dietary supplements, meditation and yoga, according to a study published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.
Can they help? The Society for Integrative Oncology’s recently updated guidelines on complementary therapies for use during and after breast cancer treatment seek to answer that question.
In developing the guidelines, 12 researchers from health organizations worldwide reviewed studies on more than 80 complementary therapies. They graded the effectiveness of each at relieving the side effects above. (An A or B grade is positive.)
Below, the therapies found to be most effective. Keep in mind that they don’t treat breast cancer itself, notes Heather Greenlee, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and lead author of the guidelines. Before you try any of these therapies, you should talk with your doctor. And be sure to use a credentialed practitioner, recommends Linda Carlson, a professor in the department of oncology at the University of Calgary and one of the guidelines’ authors.
Acupressure and electroacupuncture
Acupressure is a traditional Asian therapy that involves putting pressure on specific parts of the body. In electroacupuncture, needles are placed in the body and a small electric pulse is passed through the needle.
The researchers found that both helped ease nausea and vomiting in breast cancer patients when used alongside conventional anti-nausea drugs during chemotherapy, and gave them a grade B recommendation.
Finding a practitioner: The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine certifies practitioners in many states.
After reviewing several studies on massage — the rubbing of the body to promote relaxation and alleviate muscle tension — the team found it most useful for improving low mood after breast cancer surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, and gave it a grade B recommendation.
Finding a practitioner: Some states require massage therapists to be licensed. You can also find qualified therapists through professional societies such as the American Massage Therapy Association and the Society for Oncology Massage.
Meditation is meant to foster calmness, focus and a sense of well-being, achieved by concentrating on breath, body or a specific thought or phrase. In cancer care, meditation is often taught in multi-week mindfulness-based stress reduction programs.
Greenlee’s researchers gave it an A grade for improving the general quality of life for people with breast cancer, and improving depressive symptoms and lifting the mood of people at all stages of treatment.
Finding a practitioner: Some meditation specialists are certified by the National Meditation Specialist Certification Board. You can also find mindfulness programs through the American Mindfulness Research Association. Your doctor may have a recommendation as well.
This involves listening to, creating, playing and/or discussing music in sessions led by professional music therapists. Greenlee’s team gave passive music therapy (listening and relaxing) a B grade for its ability to reduce anxiety during cancer treatment.
Finding a practitioner: Music therapists earn college degrees (undergraduate or above) in music therapy and are credentialed by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.
Relaxation techniques and stress management
Stress-management group programs typically offer stress-reducing strategies, including deep relaxation and meditation, over several weeks.
Relaxation programs teach techniques to temporarily reduce your heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
The researchers determined that stress-management programs were most useful for breast-cancer-related anxiety (B grade). Relaxation therapy was best suited for easing depression and improving mood (A grade).
Finding a practitioner: Ask your primary-care doctor or oncologist to help you find a mental-health professional who offers one of these programs.
A mind-body practice, yoga may include postures, breathing exercises, meditation and more. The researchers determined that yoga was effective (a B grade) at reducing anxiety and depression in people recently diagnosed or going through treatment, and at improving the overall quality of life for those with breast cancer.
Finding a practitioner: The Yoga Alliance is the largest group in the United States issuing instructor certification.
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