Photo of a breast self exam
Complementary therapies use amongst women with breast cancer is particularly high, but which therapies can really help?

A ‘report card’ on complementary therapies for breast cancer

18 November, 2014

Over 80% of breast cancer patients in the United States  use complementary therapies following a breast cancer diagnosis. That figure is much the same in countries like Australia, and in the UK that figure is around 50%.

But, according to a recent study, there has been little science-based guidance to inform clinicians and patients about their safety and effectiveness. Whether you agree with this statement or not, there is no denying that women have multiple, and often legitimate reasons for using complementary treatments when they have cancer.

Some  use these therapies therapies to gain a feeling of control over the treatment of their disease. Reasons given include the need for a new source of hope, preference for natural therapy and achieving a sense of greater personal involvement.

One large study has found there is a significant association between the use of complementary and alternative therapies by cancer patients and needs unmet by conventional medicine, helplessness and lower scores on emotional and social functioning scales.

Other reasons reported by women with breast cancer  for using complementary and alternative therapies, include improving physical and emotional wellbeing and quality of life, boosting the immune system and seeking to reduce side effects.

Improving quality of life

To produce new guidelines on the use of complementary therapies for breast cancer, the Society for Integrative Oncology, researchers from several centres across  the US and Canada, analysed which integrative treatments appear to be most effective and safe for patients. They evaluated more than 80 different therapies and gave them ‘report card’ ratings.

Meditation, yoga, and relaxation with guided imagery were found to have the strongest evidence supporting their use. They received an “A” grade and are recommended for routine use for anxiety and other mood disorders common to breast cancer patients. The same practices received a “B” grade for reducing stress, depression, and fatigue, but are also endorsed for most breast cancer patients.

Acupuncture received a “B” grade for controlling chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting and can be recommended to most patients, as did acupressure. Likewise music therapy was found to reduce anxiety and improve mood.

More than 30 interventions, including some natural products and acupuncture for other conditions, had weaker evidence of benefit due to either small study sizes or conflicting study results, and received a “C” grade.

These included qigong, healing touch and mistletoe for improving mood and quality of life.

Seven other therapies were deemed unlikely to provide any benefit and are not recommended. One therapy was found to be harmful: acetyl-l-carnitine, which is marketed to prevent chemotherapy-related neuropathy, and actually appeared to increase the risk for the condition.

Results of the review are published online in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute Monographs.

New criteria

To conduct their analysis, the researchers used a set of nine biomedical publication databases to review randomized controlled clinical trials conducted from 1990 through 2013 among breast cancer patients that tested complementary therapies together with standard cancer care – defined as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormonal therapy.

Based on a set of guidelines developed by the Institute of Medicine, the researchers considered the magnitude and type of benefit and harm along with trial quality and size. Of 4,900 research articles reviewed, 203 met the criteria for the final analysis. Recommendations were organised by clinical outcome and graded using the US Preventive Services Task Force grading system.

“Most breast cancer patients have experimented with integrative therapies to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. But of the dozens of products and practices marketed to patients, we found evidence that only a handful currently have a strong evidence base,” said Heather Greenlee, ND, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and president of the Society for Integrative Oncology and lead researcher for the study.

More information needed

A number of interventions did not have sufficient evidence to support specific recommendations. “This does not mean that they don’t work, this means that we don’t yet know if they work, in what form, or what dose is the most effective. The vast majority of therapies require further investigation through well-designed controlled clinical trials,” said Dr. Greenlee.

“A challenge in assessing the safety and effectiveness of complementary therapies was the lack of standardisation of interventions across trials using similar therapeutic approaches,” said Debu Tripathy, MD, professor and chair of breast medical oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“In addition, some integrative therapies are applied in a variety of settings – early versus advanced stages of disease and a spectrum of symptom severity – such that the clinical criteria for using some therapies may not be straightforward.”

While not the final word on complementary therapies – many types of therapy were not studied or there was simply too little research to include them – the researchers also found that many of the complementary therapies were low risk, and so the lack of means to measure them may not greatly influence their clinical application.

While not the final word on complementary therapies – many types of therapy were not studied or there was simply too little research to include them

“These guidelines provide an important tool for breast cancer patients and their clinicians as they make decisions on what integrative therapies to use and not use. The guidelines clearly demonstrate that clinicians and patients should adopt shared decision-making approaches when assessing the risk-benefit ratio for each therapy. It is important to personalise the recommendations based upon patients’ clinical characteristics and values. What’s right for one patient, may be wrong for another,” said Dr. Greenlee.