Types of complementary therapies

Complementary therapies and breast cancer

Find out more about what complementary therapies are, possible benefits after a breast cancer diagnosis and whether they are safe to use.

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Acupuncture is a traditional form of Chinese medicine. Some people with breast cancer believe acupuncture helps with some side effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea and sickness, when given alongside conventional anti-sickness drugs. Others believe acupuncture may also help reduce pain or menopausal symptoms. It could also help improve your mood and reduce anxiety.

Traditional acupuncturists believe that health problems are caused by an imbalance or blockage in the flow of energy – known as ‘chi’ – in the body. They believe that acupuncture can help release these blockages.

An acupuncturist will insert very fine needles into the skin at various points on the body. This should not be painful. The points where the needles are inserted may vary depending on your individual situation. If you’ve had surgery to the lymph nodes (glands) under the arm (axilla) acupuncture needles shouldn’t be placed in the arm or hand on that side.

The acupuncture needles stimulate nerves under the skin and in muscle tissue causing the body to produce natural chemicals, such as endorphins. Endorphins released by the body give you a feeling of wellbeing.

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Acupressure and shiatsu 

Some people think acupressure or shiatsu can help with side effects such as nausea and sickness, pain, fatigue, and stress and anxiety.

An acupressure therapist will use their fingers to apply light pressure to specific points of the body. As with acupuncture, traditional acupressure is based on the belief that this will release blockages in the flow of chi.

The word ‘shiatsu’ means finger pressure. A shiatsu therapist will often use their fingers, thumbs and palms to apply deeper pressure to these points. They will sometimes also use their elbows, knees and feet to massage and stretch the body’s muscles and joints.

If you’ve had surgery to the lymph nodes under your arm, you’ll usually be advised not to have deep tissue massage to that arm, hand or chest/breast area (see our information on massage after breast cancer).

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Aromatherapy uses essential oils, taken from fragrant plants, flowers, seeds and bark, to stimulate the sense of smell. Some believe aromatherapy can improve wellbeing, boost the immune system and help with sleep problems and anxiety problems. However, there is very little research on aromatherapy for people with breast cancer so it’s difficult to know for sure.

Aromatherapists believe that different oils have different benefits. They will choose an oil or mixture of oils according to your physical and emotional needs, or you may be asked to choose an oil. Essential oils can be used in several ways. They can be mixed with a base oil to be used in massage, added to a bath, inhaled, evaporated using an oil diffuser or blended with a lotion to be applied to the skin.

Some people think that certain oils can be harmful when you have breast cancer. There is little reliable evidence about this, but talk to your GP or specialist team if you’re concerned. 

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Reiki and other healing and energy therapies

Healing is an ancient practice that means to ‘make whole’. There are several healing and energy therapies, which include Reiki, therapeutic touch and spiritual healing. Therapists aim to improve your health and wellbeing, although beliefs about how this is done vary depending on the therapy used.

Reiki is one of the most well-known healing therapies. Reiki is also based on the ancient belief that our health is linked to the flow of energy (chi) in the body. Therapists believe that chi flows from the therapist to the person being treated to help release any blockages and improve wellbeing.

You can either sit or lie down, fully clothed, while the therapist places their hands above or on certain parts of the body where they believe energy is strong. You may start to feel very relaxed during the treatment and this may last for some time after the session has finished.

Some cancer support centres have group Reiki sessions where several people are treated at once.

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Hypnotherapy uses various techniques to guide you into a deep state of relaxation, known as hypnosis. Hypnotherapists use hypnosis to try to help people cope with a range of emotional and physical problems, such as anxiety, hot flushes, nausea and pain.

During hypnosis you’ll remain conscious and aware of your surroundings. Some believe that being in a state of hypnosis makes your mind more open to accept new ways of thinking, acting and feeling.   

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Massage involves working on the body’s muscles and joints using the hands to stretch and apply pressure. This action can soothe stiffness and muscle tension, and may help you feel relaxed and less stressed. Some therapists use essential oils for the massage to help you relax. 

Massage can help some people feel more energised, which may help if you have fatigue.

Some people believe you shouldn’t have a massage if you’ve had cancer because there’s a risk of spreading cancer cells from one part of the body to another. There’s no evidence to support this idea.

Read our blog Massage after breast cancer: is it safe?, which includes tips on finding a therapist and preparing for your appointment.

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Reflexology uses finger pressure to stimulate the nerves in the feet, and sometimes the hands. Reflexology is based on the ancient belief that different areas of the feet link to different areas of the body. Reflexologists believe that by applying finger pressure to those areas of the feet, it can restore health in the linked parts of the body.

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Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness are popular relaxation techniques designed to help you reach a relaxed and focused state of mind. They can help people with breast cancer cope better with stress, anxiety and depression, and improve your mood. Some people also find they help with physical side effects such as fatigue.


Meditation is an ancient practice of focusing attention and developing a calm state of mind. Most types of meditation involve concentrated focus, controlled breathing, and developing an awareness of your thoughts and feelings.

Meditation can be practised in many different ways. It can be practised on its own, through using mindfulness techniques or as part of yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Gung practice.

You can practise meditation alone or as part of a group. 


Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment to try to reduce stress and improve quality of life. Practising mindfulness involves becoming more aware of the sights, smells, sounds and tastes that are around us at any one time, as well as the thoughts and feelings that happen from one moment to the next. 

It’s possible to practice mindfulness for yourself in daily life. To get ideas about how to do this there are lots of books and websites dedicated to mindfulness as well as apps that you can download. Some are free but you may be asked to pay for others.

Your GP may be able to refer you to a mindfulness course in your local area.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy 

The most well-researched form of mindfulness is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which combines mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

There are a few cancer centres in the UK that offer mindfulness classes. These classes might use MBCT.

Activities that improve mindfulness 

There are lots of hobbies and activities that involve deep concentration and focus the attention on the present moment. This can have the same calming effect as practising meditation or mindfulness and can help you cope better with stress.

For some people this can be an easier way to switch off than meditation and mindfulness. For others it can be a good way to get an idea of what meditation or mindfulness are about or can be practised alongside them.

Try any hobby or activity that keeps your mind focused on what you’re doing, for example colouring in, knitting, painting or cooking. It may be something you already do, or you might want to try a few new activities and see what works for you.

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Herbal therapies

Herbal therapies use plants to try to help with a range of health conditions. However, there’s conflicting evidence about the safety or effectiveness of some herbal products, and some may affect how certain cancer treatments work. Check with your specialist team or GP before using any herbal medicines.

Herbs are thought to have a reviving, balancing and strengthening effect, which some people believe helps the body to fight illness more easily.

In conventional medicine (medicine that has been approved for use in general medical practice), a number of drugs use active plant ingredients blended together. In herbal medicine the whole plant is often used including leaves, roots and berries.

The herbal products below may not be suitable if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Mistletoe (Iscador) 

Some people believe that mistletoe extract (Iscador) helps the immune system work better, improves quality of life and reduces the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. However, there’s no reliable evidence to support this theory.


Echinacea is a herbal product believed by some to help boost the immune system. However, there’s no reliable evidence to support this idea. People having chemotherapy or hormone therapy should talk to their hospital team because it can affect how well these treatments work, and can result in severe illness.

St John’s Wort 

This is used for a variety of health issues. There’s some evidence that St John’s Wort may affect the way that certain treatments for breast cancer work. It can also interact with prescription antidepressants. Check with your specialist team before you take it.

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Homeopathy uses very low doses of natural substances which aim to stimulate the body’s natural healing processes. However, there’s no reliable evidence to support this idea.

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Yoga, Thai Chi and Chi Gung


Yoga uses a combination of stretching, breathing and sometimes meditation to improve physical and emotional strength and wellbeing.

There is some evidence that practising yoga after a breast cancer diagnosis can be useful for cancer-related fatigue, pain, anxiety and depression.   

Read our blog Five poses to get you started with yoga after breast cancer for tips on how to practise safely.

Tai Chi and Chi Gung 

Tai Chi and Chi Gung (also spelled Qi Gong) are ancient forms of Chinese exercise.

They combine gentle movements with breathing exercises, which some believe help the flow of energy (chi) around the body. They use slow, controlled movements, which may help to stretch and strengthen the body’s muscles and joints. Some people believe that the concentration involved in Tai Chi or Chi Gung can reduce stress and anxiety and improve wellbeing.

As with yoga, it’s safe to practise Tai Chi or Chi Gung once you have healed from surgery and it does not cause you pain. You should discuss your breast cancer with the teacher before a class and avoid overstretching the area. If it’s painful, particularly to the arm or shoulder on the side of your surgery, stop doing it straight away.

Always check with your GP or specialist team before starting any new activity.

Apps and online tutorials

Apps and YouTube tutorials can be a great way to practise yoga, Thai Chi or Chi Gung at home. It can be especially useful if you have cancer-related fatigue, anxiety or depression and don’t feel able to attend a full class. This will allow you to work at your own pace and build up gradually.

If you’re practising yoga, Thai Chi or Chi Gung at home, make sure you choose a beginners course. Attending face-to-face classes can help you be confident you are practising correctly and safely.

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Special ‘cancer’ diets and dietary supplements 

Some people who have had breast cancer consider following a special diet or taking dietary supplements. This may be because they believe they could reduce the risk of the breast cancer coming back (recurrence).

Special cancer diets often encourage eating or avoiding certain types of food. These can often be very restricting, expensive and can sometimes lead to a lack of nutrients. There’s no conclusive evidence to show that they reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back.

If you’re thinking about taking a dietary supplement, talk to your specialist team first as the evidence for their use is conflicting and some supplements may interact with your treatment.

You may find it useful to read our information on special ‘cancer’ diets, dietary supplements and whether diet and lifestyle can affect the risk of breast cancer recurrence.

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Last reviewed: January 2018
Next planned review begins 2020

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