Complementary therapies

woman doing yoga in garden

Some people with breast cancer use complementary therapies – such as massage, acupuncture or homeopathy – alongside standard breast cancer treatment.

They are different from ‘alternative’ therapies, which are used instead of conventional treatments for breast cancer.

Some of the most commonly used complementary therapies are described below, including what they involve and what you may need to think about before trying one.

Complementary therapy tips

Check with your specialist team or GP (local doctor) before having any complementary therapies, and mention your breast cancer and treatment to any therapist you see.

  • Avoid massage over a recent scar that’s still healing or an area being treated with radiotherapy.
  • Acupuncture needles shouldn’t be placed in the arm or surrounding area if you’ve had surgery to the lymph nodes (glands) in the armpit.
  • There’s some evidence that the herb St John’s wort and ginseng may reduce the action of some of the drugs used to treat breast cancer.
  • Some herbal supplements such as ginkgo biloba, ginger and garlic may affect how blood clots form, so it’s best to avoid them before surgery.
  • Yoga involves stretching the arms and shoulders, so be careful not to strain the area if you’ve had surgery to the lymph nodes in the armpit.

» Find more tips on complementary therapies after breast cancer in BECCA, our free app

Are complementary therapies effective?

Some people find that complementary therapies can help improve the side effects of their breast cancer treatment.

However, there’s been little reliable research into complementary therapies. For this reason it is hard to judge how useful complementary therapies are or whether they could affect your breast cancer treatment.

Are there any therapies I should avoid?

Doctors may advise avoiding some therapies (particularly herbal remedies) if there’s a chance they could affect how your breast cancer treatment works.

Always talk to your specialist team if you’re thinking of having a complementary therapy.

Choosing a complementary therapy or therapist

If you’re thinking of having a complementary therapy, you may find it helpful to:

  • read about different types of complementary therapies or look at our Complementary therapies booklet 
  • ask your breast care nurse for a list of therapists in your area
  • ask other people for advice and information on therapists, such as your GP or a local cancer support group
  • ask a therapist if they have worked with people who have had breast cancer
  • think about how comfortable you are with the way particular therapies are given (for example, you may need to be partially or fully undressed).

How much do complementary therapies cost?

Complementary therapies at hospitals, cancer support centres, hospices and charities may be free or their cost may be based on what you can afford to pay.

You can also pay for complementary therapies privately, the cost of which will vary with each therapist and the type of therapy you choose.

Last reviewed: May 2015
Next planned review begins 2017

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Please note that we cannot respond to comments. If you have any questions about breast cancer please contact the Helpline on 0808 800 6000.

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