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.
It should be noted though that some alternative treatments may have adverse effects with the medication you are taking for breast cancer treatment. It is therefore strongly advised to see a pharmacist or health care professional before taking any alternative treatments or medications. For example, some studies have shown that certain forms of vitamin C therapy may make chemotherapy less effective.
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, Tai Chi, and meditation. 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.
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.