For women facing breast cancer, the diagnosis is just the first item on a long list of things you never want to hear.
Radiation therapy can cause fatigue, hair loss, and even lung problems. Chemotherapy is notorious for sometimes severe side effects like nausea, extreme fatigue and neuropathy. While most women are more than willing to bear these burdens for a chance at beating breast cancer, these side effects, along with the inevitable emotional stress, have given rise to another branch of cancer treatment: alternative medicine.
Today, more and more women are turning to alternative treatments for breast cancer, such as acupuncture, mind-body therapies and traditional Chinese medicine. These treatments, which often have roots in Eastern medicine, are generally used as complementary, or additional, treatments along with conventional methods such as surgery and chemotherapy. They can help combat both the emotional and physical side effects of breast cancer treatment, and many women maintain that alternative treatments were a vital lifeline during their struggle with the disease.
According to Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, a professor and Director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, "There's a lot of research showing that mind-body programs, whether it's meditation, yoga or support groups, can be very useful at helping to manage side effects of the disease and of some of the Western treatments."
Among the greatest benefits of movement-based and mind-body therapy is stress reduction. Dr. Cohen explains that "there's some indication from research that these types of programs will actually have an influence on biological outcomes, such as stress hormones we know that stress can be quite damaging, and doing something to help alleviate that stress can be very useful."
The crown jewel of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, is a popular and effective therapy for many cancer patients. Andrea Busch, a 31-year-old breast cancer survivor from St. Paul, Minn., chose to make acupuncture a prominent feature of her treatment process. For Andrea, as for many women, acupuncture -- although it can help with the physical side effects of chemotherapy and radiation like nausea, fatigue and irregular bowel movements can provide a welcomed calm spell to a mind that is already stressed out by the day-to-day routine. At the time of diagnosis, Andrea said her "honest reaction was 'I don't have time for this.' I was already seeing somebody for acupuncture; it was super helpful in calming my nerves. Later, I started taking a meditation class and that really helped with all the thoughts that run through your head."
A long-time subscriber to the benefits of alternative and natural medicines, Andrea was at first inclined to refuse chemotherapy all together. Before her diagnosis, she refrained from taking even aspirin for a headache, and was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of "toxins going through my body."
However, with the help of a support group, she "realized that I had to work on my attitude towards Western medicine. According to my doctors, I had to try everything in my possible control, so I did." In Andrea's case, that included a wide array of complementary therapies and supplements recommended by a naturopath.
Certain mind-body therapies include what is called guided imagery. Dr. Cohen, who works on a daily basis with this and other complementary treatments, said "guided imagery can take a number of different forms, but the most common form is to help a patient get into a relaxed state, an environment that is warm and comfortable. perhaps a place from childhood or a beach. The most important part is that it engages all the senses and relaxes. There's no question that your heart rate and blood pressure will go down."
The soothing effects of mind-body imagery and movement therapies can also help patients deal with what is casually referred to as "chemo-brain," a symptom of chemotherapy that blankets a patient's brain in a sort of fog, slowing down cognitive functions and making it difficult to concentrate, perform simple or multiple tasks, and remember words, names, and dates. Although there is not yet conclusive evidence that alternative therapies could help improve cognitive function, Dr. Cohen believes that "there's reason to think that meditation could actually help the specific brain regions that have been damaged by chemotherapy, and there is evidence that it improves quality of life and sleep," a vital part of regaining normal brain function.
While many people may be skeptical about the benefits of natural and non-Western medicines, most doctors will strongly recommend patients engage in complementary treatments to help cope with the many burdens, biological and emotional, of breast cancer.
Andrea, currently cancer-free, believes now more than ever that there exists a strong connection between her mind and her body. During chemotherapy, she and a friend used the mental imagery of tiny firefighters "sweeping away the cancer." Today, she says, "I imagine they're just picking up the last crumbs."