Almost all of the women we spoke to had made changes of some sort in their daily routines in terms of things like exercise, yoga, eating healthy foods or, taking vitamin supplements or other activities, such as massage therapy – they told us they felt motivated to be physically and mentally strong and that it might help them with treatments or recovery. This was usually as a support or complement to the medical treatments in their plan of care. There is some emerging evidence for the effects of certain complementary treatments such the use of exercise in healing and recovery, and the use of medical marijuana for chronic pain. Some had tried less common approaches. Women varied in the extent to which they had discussions with their healthcare team about alternative and complementary approaches, and they had different experiences regarding the level of support from doctors, nurses or therapists for these approaches.
An alternative therapy is generally defined as some form of treatment or therapy that is used instead of conventional medical care. All conventional cancer treatments have to have gone through rigorous testing by law in order to prove that they work. Most alternative therapies have not been through such evaluation and thus there is typically limited or no available scientific evidence about whether or not they work. It is highly recommended that women speak to their healthcare teams about alternative treatments to consider the potential benefits and harms from therapies that are considered more experimental or unproven.
Some of the women we spoke to considered rejecting the recommended medical treatment entirely to follow a more alternative pathway. However, all the women we spoke to told us that they eventually chose to follow all or most medical treatments with other treatments as a complement.
I did a phone consultation with a naturopath who had been recommended to me and I had 15 minutes with her by phone and I just kind of needed a different... I just wanted a different perspective.
So when I met with the medical oncologist he outlined the treatment plan for me, talked to me about a chemotherapy plan and how long it would take and I told him I would think about it and then left it at that. I’m quite into natural medicine and alternative therapies and I wanted to do some investigation that way.
In addition to the medical treatments, women often used other complementary therapies – which are those used alongside conventional medical treatments. These complementary therapies usually helped women feel better and cope better with the cancer and treatments. Because of the risk of side effects or unexpected reactions, it is usually highly recommended to discuss any complementary therapy with the doctor before using it.
The women we spoke to described using services such as physiotherapy, lymphatic massages, acupuncture, naturopathy (such as Vitamin C treatments, energy work, and green tea extracts), and pain relief or taste improvement with the use of marijuana medication. Women also engaged in activities and services to improve their mental health and well-being, such as psychosocial support through counselling, certain exercise classes that helped with relaxation such as Pilates, fitness, yoga, Chai Chi, and mediation. But they also described using services that provided wigs, makeup sessions, and other approaches to improve their appearance and self-confidence. Donna made use of aboriginal healing techniques and created her own moisturizers out of natural ingredients during radiation therapy. Many women described the advantages of having regular massages or physiotherapy.
I tried, well the tingling like... I couldn’t be anywhere and I was going like this... my hands were all like..... I tried everything to try and get rid of that. I went to a chiropractor, I went to physio. Well I went to physio first for my arm anyway, for my lymph nodes that were removed, so I went to physiotherapy but only in the beginning, post-surgery, to get the movement back. I tried massage back then and then I stopped for a while. I went to a chiropractor to see if he could help with the nerve damage stuff but no. He told me it’s not going to help, you should try massage again. Try deep tissue massage and that really does help. Other than that no I didn’t go to anything else.
One of the great things, when the Cancer Centre here really was moved all into the one campus and opened in a new building, was that, there’s a researcher who also specializes in breast cancer and she really felt that exercise that cancer patients should be able to exercise and she started it with breast cancer patients as a research study.
And I feel very badly for women who are really upset about it because I do know women who have survived years after breast cancer and it can happen for all of us. The only thing I can say about having my TRAM flap*(Transverse Rectus Abdominis Muscle Flap) is that I don’t know whether it made my stomach smaller or whether it’s just, I didn’t eat a lot while I was on chemo I can’t eat a lot at one time. I eat lots during the day, like I pick during the day because I cannot eat a big meal at once. I can have a little bowl of cereal or I can have a piece of cake or something but I don’t eat a lot and plus I don’t have any taste buds. My, I was hoping and I’ve asked three doctors but they will not prescribe marijuana and so I have some on the side but I don’t smoke it enough because I forget. I’ll lie in bed and think "Oh I should have a joint." But because all it does is I’ll smoke it and then it makes me tired and I’ll go to bed and have a good sleep. And I find that the first day my mouth is really smoky, the second day I can actually taste something for the first time. I had one I couldn’t believe it because I was eating a spinach and feta pizza and I could actually taste the feta and I was so excited that I could actually taste something. But I need to do that more and I think that marijuana should be legalized and I think that Trudeau is on the right track because I do not think that it’s a bad thing.
* TRAM flap: A section of the lower belly containing blood vessels, skin, fat and muscle is cut and used for breast reconstruction.
Interviewer: And then it improves your taste sensation.
Yes, yes it does, one of the fellas I work with is a scientist and he had gotten this information and gave it to me and I do have information on that if you want it, it says that it does.
So I’m going to see, apparently you can get something that you can put the marijuana in and then you can inhale it and you don’t get that smoke and so I’m going to see if I can find one of these little machines and try that. I think that marijuana should be, and I think that if it is beneficial, that it should be allowed and I know that some doctors will give you a prescription.
The other treatment that has been very successful with me has been acupuncture, to help manage hot flashes. Being jolted into menopause at 46. I’m still suffering the side effects of hot flashes that could go on throughout the 5 years of hormone treatment, but it does help. I find it helps immensely. It works for myself and for other patients I’ve heard it doesn’t help as much.
It’s going to affect you long-term as well this is something you’re going to have to live with and, and you have to process and I mean if you’re somebody who’s never considered going to a counselor it’s not such a bad idea.
If you don’t have anybody that you can truly open up to and have a safe place to talk to some of your fears and your concerns about. I just recently started seeing a counselor and it’s a nice place to go to sort of say "Okay this is, this is what I’m thinking today and some of the things that I’m really concerned about and what I want to have some plans in place for." You’re either a planner or you’re not I’m a planner A-type personality, sorry, and for me it was having a security blanket for my son, having him to make sure that he’s okay if something starts to go down the road. So what we did is we, I started to see this counselor and I thought that she would connect with my son, and she had worked with children, so I’ve seen her three times now. And so we had him meet her under a, not for a session, just and she, my son loves dogs, and so she brought her dog and it was just a meeting session. And so we’re going to continue to do this over the next little while and so she’s going to get to know him, and so he’s going to feel comfortable so that if things and I’m going to say if because I’m going to be continually optimistic that I’m going to try to have as many years as I possibly can. But or if I find that his, I’m sensing something that he’s not opening up to me about, then he has a safe place to land and some place safe to talk to because he’s a protector in nature and wants to protect mom and so I think I don’t hear a lot of stuff that he has to say or a lot of his fears and stuff like that.
Complementary services and the health care team
Women had different approaches to sharing information about using complementary treatments with the medical professionals. Kathryn said she did not say anything to her medical doctors as she thought they would tell her to stop. She is also seeing a medical doctor privately in the USA and appreciates his time and knowledge, but she does share his advice with the professionals in Canada. Donna felt the medical professionals were not open to complementary treatments but found a nurse who helped her to sort out how to combine both kinds of treatments.
Yes since then, and so I really sort of appreciated the time she spent with me. One of the other things I found was, I had told the doctors that I was doing some of these other therapies and they were very adamant that if I was going to do anything like that I needed to check with the department first.
Recently, I began to do more research on this and also to consult by reference because I don’t want to see just anybody. I started seeing an osteopath since last fall. So the fall… I would say November 2014 and I am transparent about it with my oncologist. I believe that even if we are looking for additional services, our medical treating team must be aware of it.