Types of complementary therapies

You may have questions around the following complementary therapies:

It’s important to speak to your specialist team before you have any complementary therapy. Also, tell any therapist you see about your breast cancer and its treatment. 

Acupuncture

An acupuncturist will insert very fine needles into the skin at various points on the body. The acupuncture needles stimulate nerves under the skin and in muscle tissue causing the body to produce natural chemicals, such as endorphins. Endorphins are hormones that give you a feeling of wellbeing.

Acupuncture needles shouldn’t be placed in your arm or surrounding area if you’ve had surgery to the lymph nodes (glands) under the arm.

Shiatsu and acupressure

Shiatsu, meaning ‘finger pressure’, is commonly referred to as acupressure because it’s thought to work in a similar way to acupuncture.

Shiatsu therapists believe that health problems happen due to an imbalance or blockage in the flow of energy, or chi, in the body. They believe they can release these blockages by applying gentle pressure to the body, often using their thumbs and palms, and sometimes their elbows, knees and feet.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy uses essential oils from fragrant plants, flowers, seeds and bark to stimulate the sense of smell, which in turn is believed by aromatherapists to help healing.

Essential oils can be mixed with a base oil to be used in massage, added to a bath, inhaled, evaporated using an oil burner or blended with a lotion to be applied to the skin.

Massage

Massage involves working on the body’s muscles and joints using the hands to stretch and apply pressure. This action can soothe stiffness and is thought to help the flow of lymph fluid and blood. The rhythmic strokes can also help you feel relaxed.

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

If you’ve had surgery to the lymph nodes (glands) under your arm, you’ll usually be advised not to have deep tissue massage to that arm unless your therapist has also been trained in a type of massage known as manual lymphatic drainage.

Avoid massage over a recent scar that’s still healing. If you’re having radiotherapy, the area being treated should not be massaged.

Healing and energy therapies

There are several healing and energy therapies which include Reiki, therapeutic touch and spiritual healing. Therapists aim to improve your health and wellbeing.

Reiki is one of the most well-known healing therapies. Therapists believe that an energy, known as chi, flows from the therapist to the person being treated to help bring back balance and 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.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment to try to reduce stress and improve quality of life. Some people believe by being mindful we become 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.

There are a few NHS cancer centres in the UK that offer mindfulness classes. These classes might use mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which combines mindfulness with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a type of therapy that focuses on problems in the ‘here and now’. Classes also use meditation, yoga and breathing techniques.

It is also possible to practise mindfulness 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.

  • Smiling Mind is available on the web and as a free app that you can install onto your iPhone or Android phone. It guides you through practicing mindfulness.
  • Mindfulness Bell There are several apps available for Android and iOS devices that you can set to ring at certain times of the day. This can be a useful reminder about being mindful.

Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Gung

There are different types of yoga, which mainly use exercise, breathing and sometimes meditation. Some styles, such as iyengar and restorative yoga, focus on relaxation and are suitable for beginners.

Depending on the type you do, it may be vigorous or gentle leaving you feeling full of energy or relaxed.

  • Tai Chi involves slow and controlled movements, which may help to stretch and strengthen the body’s muscles and joints. Some people believe that the concentration of the mind involved in Tai Chi, as with yoga, can be very calming.
  • Chi Gung (also spelled Qi Gong) uses breathing exercises and gentle movements, which some people believe can help lower stress levels.
  • Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Gung involve stretching the arms and shoulders. Anyone who’s had surgery to the lymph nodes (glands) in the armpit should discuss this with their teacher before a class and avoid straining the area.
  • If it’s painful, particularly to the arm or shoulder on the side of your surgery, stop doing it immediately. 

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine uses plants to try to help with a range of health conditions.

Although herbal remedies use natural plant ingredients, it doesn’t mean they’re always safe. Some herbal medicines can have an effect on your standard medical treatment.

Discuss any herbal supplements with your specialist or breast care nurse before taking them. 

Homeopathy

Homeopathy is the use of very low doses of natural substances which, when matched to the individual, aim to stimulate a self-healing or self-repair response in the body. However, there’s no reliable evidence to support this idea.

Homeopathic remedies are made in different strengths but homeopaths believe the remedies with the strongest effect are often the more diluted (watered down) ones. 

Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis can help some people reach a deep state of relaxation. Hypnotherapy aims to try to help people cope with a range of feelings as well as phobias, hot flushes, nausea and pain.

Reflexology

Reflexology is thought to stimulate the nerve endings in the feet, and sometimes the hands.

Reflexologists believe different areas of the feet link to different areas of the body, and that by treating these areas of the feet with finger pressure, the linked parts of the body can be healed.

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

Last reviewed: May 2015
Next planned review begins 2017

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