Many women with breast cancer are interested in using more natural remedies to treat the side effects of cancer treatment. Examples include using aromatherapy for nausea, or acupuncture to treat pain. Historically, oncologists have not endorsed these practices as they were not trained in these techniques and consequently approached these techniques with caution and suspicion. Fortunately, this is changing. “Integrative oncology” is the practice of using both traditional “Western” medicine for cancer treatment while using “Eastern” medicine for side effect management and cancer prevention.

I have been a member of the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO) for many years. The SIO strives to apply the same scientific rigor to complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage, yoga, and meditation, as done with conventional chemo, radiation, and surgery. In 2017 the SIO published Clinical practice guidelines on the evidence‐based use of integrative therapies during and after breast cancer treatment.

These guidelines review the available medical science supporting integrative medicine for breast cancer patients during and after their treatment. The authors include physicians and researchers at many top cancer programs in the United States including Columbia, MD Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Michigan, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In 2018, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) endorsed these guidelines making them widely accepted in the oncology community.

Society for Integrative Oncology makes the following recommendations for breast cancer patients:

  • Use of music therapy, meditation, stress management and yoga for anxiety and stress reduction
  • Use of meditation, relaxation, yoga, massage and music therapy for depression and mood disorders
  • Use of meditation and yoga to improve quality of life
  • Use of acupressure and acupuncture for reducing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting

However, the researchers did note that there is a lack of strong evidence supporting the use of ingested dietary supplements or botanical natural products as part of supportive care and/or to manage breast cancer treatment-related side effects.

I support these practices among my patients and agree with the SIO that there is insufficient evidence supporting dietary supplements or botanical products. Many patients ask me about a “natural” cream for their skin during radiation or if they can take high doses of various supplement s to “help boost their immune system” during their cancer treatment. Unfortunately, many of these claims are false and my team and I are always happy to review the data with our patients.

Patient-focused treatment, and an individualized approach to oncology means Dr. Norleena Gullett is not just treating cancer, she's treating the whole person.