Complementary therapies

Conventional medicines are the treatments that you receive to treat your cancer, such as chemotherapy, hormonal therapies, targeted therapies or radiotherapy. Their efficacy in treating cancer has been proven with lots of research evidence gathered in rigorous scientific trials. For secondary breast cancer, this research has determined which treatments slow the spread of cancer and help women to live well for longer.

Complementary therapies are intended to complement (i.e. to be used alongside) conventional medicine. They are not used to treat cancer itself, rather to support other aspects of health and well-being. In doing so, they promote a holistic approach to treatment. This means that the individual is treated ‘as a whole’ person rather than just their cancer. This can be hugely important for women living with secondary breast cancer, whose diagnosis impacts upon so many aspects of physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being.

Many people with cancer choose to use complementary therapies and report a range of benefits. These may in part be related to a sense of control, comfort and relaxation brought about by many of the therapies, helping people to better cope with the physical and emotional effects of cancer. Some people also find that complementary therapies can help to relieve side-effects of treatment.

Alternative therapies, on the other hand, are used instead of conventional medicine. Some claim that they are able to cure or treat cancer despite very limited evidence or, sometimes, no evidence at all. They can be harmful and stopping conventional treatment in favour of these therapies can lead to further growth and progression of cancer.

Here, we provide a wide range of information on complementary therapies to help you to make an informed decision about whether these might be helpful for you. 

Things to consider when exploring complementary therapies

Inform your medical team. It is important to keep your medical team updated about any complementary therapies that you are using or are considering using in case there is any risk of them interfering with your treatment or causing any unintended harm or side effects. You may worry that your doctor or nurse will be disapproving or unsupportive of your decision to use these therapies. However, use of complementary therapies is very common in secondary breast cancer, and in a wide range of other cancers and health conditions, and they will respect your choice and your personal opinions. They will be grateful that you are keeping them ‘in the loop’ as they will want you to receive the best possible treatment whilst also having the best possible quality of life and this is better achieved when you are working together.

Beware of bold claims. The evidence base for some therapies is slowly growing, however there is much less reliable evidence supporting the efficacy of complementary therapies than there is for conventional medicines. Charities such as Macmillan are calling for further high-quality research to be able prove which therapies are safe and effective. This is not to say that complementary therapies won’t work for you. Lots of people find them to be helpful in many different ways, but be wary of therapists who claim that they are able to cure your cancer. If you have any doubts or uncertainties, speak to your doctor, nurse or experts at the Macmillan Support Line or Breast Cancer Now Helpline.

Choose carefully. Make sure you opt for a qualified therapist who has experience of providing therapy to people with cancer, preferably one who belongs to a professional body. Macmillan have a list of organisations who are able to provide details of registered therapists. Lots of doctors, nurses and physiotherapists now train in complementary therapies too so it worthwhile finding out whether you can access these at your hospital. Your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse) will be able to advise you on either hospital-based or other local services. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable and able to trust any therapist you opt for and that they are aware of your secondary breast cancer and the treatment you are taking.

Ask around. Speak to friends, loved ones or other people you might know, with secondary breast cancer or otherwise, about their experiences of complementary therapies. If you attend a support group for women with secondary breast cancer, this is often a topic which is discussed and some even hold a session to try out complementary therapies. Alternatively, this is a topic often widely discussed on some of the online support groups and forums. The website healthtalk.org also has videos of different people discussing their experiences of complementary therapies.

Check costs.  Some complementary therapies are freely available through the NHS and cancer support charities such as Penny Brohn or Breast Cancer Haven (with centres across the UK). Explore these options first as accessing therapies elsewhere can be costly, especially if you find them to be beneficial to you and wish to use them regularly over time. Check with other therapists and services to get an idea of what a treatment or therapy should usually cost and make sure that you are not being over charged. Ask about free taster sessions and whether there are discounted rates, for example for booking a number of sessions at a time.

A-Z of complementary therapies

Acupuncture

This is a therapy which involves having very fine needles inserted into the skin at different points on the body.

Within Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is believed that a flow of energy (or ‘chi’) is released when these needles are inserted, helping to achieve balance within the body.

An evidence-based form of medical acupuncture (Western medical acupuncture) has also evolved. This has been guided by research and medical knowledge and is sometimes available on the NHS. In this form of acupuncture, needles are inserted in areas of the body where they are thought to stimulate nerves and promote the release of endorphins (the body’s ‘feel good’ chemicals). Research has shown that Western medical acupuncture can help to relieve symptoms such as hot flushes and sickness. Some people also find it can be an effective form of pain relief.

Your hospital may be able to provide this therapy, delivered by trained doctors, nurses or physiotherapists. They may do so within a clinic specialising in pain control or within a palliative care team. Health professionals in palliative care teams are experts in symptom control.

Be sure to check with your cancer doctor before trying acupuncture as there are certain situations where it should be avoided, for example if you have or are at risk of developing lymphoedema, or if you have low white blood cells (increasing your chances of infection) or low platelets (cells involved in blood clotting, increasing your risk of bleeding).                

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy involves the use of natural oils extracted from plants and flowers (essential oils) thought to boost mental and physical well-being by stimulating the sense of smell. They may be used as part of massage therapy, mixed in creams or bath products or simply evaporated or inhaled (released from diffusers or inhalers). Lots of people find the use of aromatherapy oils to be very relaxing.

Specialists in this sort of therapy are known as aromatherapists. They believe that different oils are able to support different physical and emotional needs. It is important for them to be aware of your cancer, treatment and any other medical details as the oils can have physical effects on the body and lower-strengths are usually used for people with cancer. It is a good idea to discuss this therapy with your doctor or nurse first as they will be able to advise you further. They may also be able to point you in the direction of a qualified therapist or service providing aromatherapy.

Art therapy

This therapy is used as a way of exploring emotions and experiences through art, whether painting, drawing or even sculpting. This can be delivered one-to-one or in a group setting. Some people find that this is a more practical way of processing emotions, as well as being therapeutic, relaxing and a form of distraction from anxieties and stress. Art therapy sessions are often led by therapists with a background in psychotherapy, who will be skilled in guiding you to communicate your feelings through art. You do not have to be a budding artist or even very creative, since the aim is to express and better cope with your emotions rather than to create a masterpiece! You may find that just doodling or putting paint on paper can help you to be more aware of the emotions you are experiencing. These can then be discussed in counselling, support groups, with your doctor or nurse, or just someone you trust, if you choose.

Art therapy sessions are not widely available on the NHS, though it is worth asking your local cancer information centre (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse) if they are aware of any NHS or charity led sessions.

You can also search for art therapists via the British Association of Art Therapists.

Maggie’s centres, based across the UK, often run art therapy sessions as well as providing a range of other emotional and practical support.

Cannabis oil & CBD oil

It is understandable that people living with secondary breast cancer, or their loved ones, might wish to explore all possible treatment options, particularly if conventional treatment is not having a significant effect or if you are struggling with lots of side effects. Cannabis oils have received lots of media coverage so you may be wondering whether these could help.

Whilst you may come across stories of individuals finding great benefits to using cannabis oil, these isolated examples are not enough to prove its efficacy. Lots of research has been carried out to see whether the substances found in cannabis can be used in cancer treatment, with differing results. Some studies found positive, protective effects whereas others found that using cannabis can be damaging for people with cancer and may even increase the risk of developing cancer. There is some evidence to suggest that cannabis oil can help to reduce pain and relieve nausea but, again, the results are mixed and experts feel that much more research is needed before we are able to say whether or not cannabis could be useful and effective in conditions such as secondary breast cancer.

Terminology

The different terms and different names for cannabis containing oils can be very confusing.

Cannabis, otherwise known as marijuana, pot, hash, hemp or grass, is a plant which has been used as a medicine and as a recreational drug for centuries.

Cannabinoids are substances found in the resin which is produced by the cannabis plant. The two main cannabinoids are THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabidiol) and CBD (cannabidiol). CBD is legal in the UK, but it is illegal to use any substances containing THC.

Cannabis oil

Cannabis oil can contain varying amounts of both THC and CBD. THC can cause a number of unpleasant and potentially harmful side effects (known as psychoactive effects) such as increased heart rate, dizziness and hallucinations. It can also make you feel paranoid and ‘stoned’.

Buying cannabis oil online can therefore be dangerous, as it is not always clear what you are getting in terms of how much THC and CBD it contains.

CBD oil

CBD oil in its pure form contains the CBD cannabinoid only and is therefore not illegal. Because it does not contain THC, it does not cause the same psychoactive effects. It can be sold in the UK, though only as a health food supplement and not as a medicine or medicinal supplement. Be wary of any retailers making claims about medicinal properties or cancer curing abilities of CBD; this is illegal and is not backed up by enough evidence.

It is a good idea to speak to your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse) if you are thinking about trying CBD oil. They will be able to advise you further on any important considerations or potential risks to be aware of.

For further information visit the National Cancer Institute and Cancer Research UK.

Diets & dietary supplements

Some people choose to change or add to their diet as a way of improving their health and managing symptoms in secondary breast cancer. Always speak to your doctor or dietitian before making changes to your diet as this could potentially interfere with your treatment or reduce important vitamins and nutrients in your diet.

Whilst dietary supplements can be a useful way of topping up nutrients for people who are struggling to get enough, for example due to eating problems or their bodies being unable to absorb them, a healthy, balanced diet usually provides the correct amounts of vitamins and nutrients that you need. 

Please see our section on Healthy living for further information on diet and nutrition.

Herbal remedies

Herbal therapy, or use of herbal remedies, looks to harness any potentially medicinal properties of plants to help people with a wide range of different health conditions. In conventional medicine, some drugs are made (and rigorously tested in clinical trials) using parts of plants or active plant ingredients. Herbal remedies, on the other hand, use the whole plant and some people believe that this helps the body to fight illness and infection.

Traditional Chinese Medicine uses lots of herbal remedies, though not all therapists (‘herbalists’) using herbal remedies practice TCM. The remedies themselves come in a range of forms, from herbal teas and tablets to creams and ointments. You may have come across some already, without realising, such as ginger tea and green tea. Whilst people report benefits to using herbal therapies, the research evidence is limited.

Though plants and herbs are ‘natural’, this does not always mean that they are safe. It is important to be aware of the risks of using herbal therapies whilst being treated for secondary breast cancer as many can cause harm by interfering with your conventional treatment, potentially making them more toxic or less effective. Because plants and herbs have many different active ingredients, it is difficult to know the effects of every single one on the body and their potential interactions with the many different sorts of cancer treatment. It is important for you to make sure your medical team is aware of any herbal remedies you are considering or have started taking to make sure that they are safe for you.

Herbal remedies to be particularly cautious of include:

  • Green tea: This can potentially increase side effects caused by Tamoxifen.
  • St John’s wort: This is used for a wide range of health conditions. However, it can potentially interact with breast cancer treatments, as well as treatment taken for depression. 
  • Garlic & evening primrose oil: These can affect the blood’s ability to form clots.
  • Echinacea: This herbal remedy is believed to strengthen a person’s immune system and their ability to fight illness. However, there is no research evidence to support this and it can be dangerous for people being treated for cancer since it can interact with chemotherapy and hormone therapy, affecting how they work.

If you come across a herbal remedy which you would like to try, speak to your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse) first.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy involves the use of very low doses of natural plant mineral extracts which are thought to cause certain conditions in the body. The idea is that, when coming across these substances in such small doses, the body will then be stimulated to fight against this condition. The homeopathic remedies, which can be tablets, liquids or creams, may therefore cause the same symptoms as the health condition they are seeking to treat. However, some people believe that this triggers the body’s reaction against them, in turn relieving them.

There is currently no reliable research evidence to suggest that homeopathy is effective in secondary breast cancer or other health conditions. However, because the remedies contain such low doses (sometimes barely a trace) of the plant or mineral extracts, they are usually safe to try alongside cancer treatment.

Homeopathy is sometimes available through the NHS so it is worth speaking to your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse) if you are interested in trying this form of therapy. They may be aware of local NHS or charity funded services offering this.

Hypnotherapy

This therapy aims to guide you into a deeply relaxed (or ‘trance like’) state, to encourage you to feel a sense of calmness and other positive emotions. This is similar to the sort of state our minds go in when we day dream or focus our concentration on something. You are still aware of your surroundings and in control of your body and mind. You are able to open your eyes at any point. The hypnotherapist will speak to you soothingly and slowly. We are not yet clear as to how hypnotherapy works. One theory is that entering a state of deep relaxation allows your conscious mind to ‘switch off’, leaving your unconscious mind open to suggestions such as embracing positive emotions or making positive behavioural changes. However, you always remain in control and you are able to decide whether to follow the therapist’s suggestions or not.

Hypnotherapy is often used to help people to make positive changes to their lifestyle, for example giving up smoking or losing weight, as it guides them to a more positive mental state. Research studies have found that hypnotherapy can help to relieve side effects such as pain, nausea and vomiting. The evidence isn’t quite strong or reliable enough, however, for it to replace conventional treatments as the recommended approach to managing these symptoms.

If you are interested in finding out more, speak to your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse). They may be aware of any services or charities offering hypnotherapy sessions in your local area.

Cancer Research UK have a range of further information on hypnotherapy.

Massage therapy

Massage therapy involves the use of touch to stretch and apply pressure to the muscles in order to relieve stiffness and tension. Some therapists use aromatherapy oils when massaging to help relax the body and mind.  Massage therapy can be soft and gentle or much firmer. A gentler approach, rather than deep tissue massages, is usually advised for people with cancer. In particular, therapists should avoid areas affected by your cancer, such as the lymph nodes or other places where your cancer has spread (e.g. the bones). It is also a good idea to avoid areas where you are being treated with radiotherapy, where you have anything placed such as central lines or pain relief patches, or areas which are bruised or feeling particularly sensitive. Varicose veins, areas over blood clots and areas over poor circulation should also be avoided.

Some people worry that massage therapy may cause cancer cells to spread elsewhere in the body but there is no evidence to support this. Massage therapy can be very helpful for people living with cancer when performed by trained and qualified therapists with knowledge and experience in this area. Research has shown that it can help to relieve symptoms such as pain, fatigue, anxiety and depression.

It is a good idea to speak to your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse) before you try massage therapy. This is particularly important if your cancer has spread to your bones, or you have a low number of platelets (the cells which allow the blood to clot).

Meditation

Meditation involves focusing your attention, concentrating and reflecting to bring about a state of deep relaxation and calming of the mind. It can be practiced in lots of different ways, individually, in a group or as part of other practices such as yoga and Tai Chi. Most types of meditation involve controlled breathing and being aware of your thoughts and feelings.

Meditation might also include visualisation or mental imagery. This involves imagining peaceful places or positive feelings to aid relaxation. Studies have found that, for some people, this can help to improve mood and to relieve symptoms and side-effects of cancer. 

Research has also shown that meditation in general can bring about physical effects such as lowering blood pressure and slowing the heart rate, which can in turn reduce anxiety and stress.

It is a good idea to speak to your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse) before practising any forms of meditation, particularly if you are currently managing or have previously experienced any problems with your mental health.

Mindfulness

The purpose of mindfulness is to focus on the present moment as a way of reducing worries, fear, anxiety and stress. This can involve focusing on and developing an awareness of your senses at the current moment in time, such as what you can smell, hear and feel as well as the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing. Practising mindfulness can help you to change the way you think and deal with different thoughts and experiences.

Your healthcare professionals may be able to refer you to a mindfulness course led by a health or charitable service in your local area.

Music therapy

Music therapy aims to help people to express and cope with their emotions through music. You do not have to be able to play an instrument or be an aspiring musician to try this therapy; therapists guide people of all abilities (either one-on-one or in a group setting) through simple musical practice with the aim of helping them to communicate how they are feeling.

Studies have been carried out into music therapy and there is evidence to suggest it can help to relieve symptoms experienced in cancer such as pain.

As with art therapy, music therapy sessions are not widely available on the NHS. However, it is worth asking your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse) or enquiring at your local cancer information centre to see if they are aware of any NHS or charity led sessions in your area.

You can also search for music therapists via the British Association for Music Therapy.

Reflexology

Reflexology is a form of massage therapy where pressure is applied to specific areas on the hands and feet. These areas are thought to be directly connected to different parts of the body. Reflexologists believe that, through massaging the hands and feet, they are able to restore health to different parts of the body.  

Though there is no evidence to support the efficacy of reflexology in treating symptoms such as pain and nausea, some people find benefits and relief of symptoms related to a feeling of relaxation brought about through massage. This can help to reduce anxiety and stress which may be worsening other symptoms.

Relaxation

Relaxation is an aspect of many different complementary therapies. Used alone, simple relaxation and breathing exercises can help to ease a range of physical and emotional effects of cancer by reducing anxiety, stress and tensions in your body.

You can practice relaxation by yourself at home, using podcasts, books, music or YouTube videos, or as part of a group.

The Mental Health Foundation have a range of different podcasts, videos and exercises on their website to help with the practice of relaxation, mindfulness and for overall mental well-being.

Shiatsu & acupressure

Shiatsu is a Japanese massage therapy which is very similar to another form of massage, known as acupressure. Traditionally, this therapy is based on the belief that pressure applied at certain points on the body will release any blockages in the flow of energy (‘chi’), helping to restore health. A therapist may use their fingers, hands, elbows and even feet to apply deep pressure.

Acupressure has been found to be effective in reducing fatigue experienced by women treated for breast cancer. However, there is little evidence to support its efficacy in the management of other symptoms, though it can be a very relaxing and stress-reducing experience.

As with all massage therapy, it is important for therapists to be aware of your cancer and treatment and to avoid deep tissue massage in areas affected by your cancer.

Ask your healthcare professionals or visit your local cancer information centre, to see if there are any charities or services providing these therapies in your local area.

Tai chi & Chi Gung (Qi Gong)

These are both ancient Chinese exercise practices involving gentle, controlled movements and breathing. Traditionally, it is believed that this aids the flow of energy (‘chi’) around the body. These exercises may help to strengthen muscles and joints, as well as relaxing the body and mind.

You may find classes in your local area by searching on Google, or lessons that you can follow along from home on YouTube. Speak to your doctor, nurse or GP before trying these exercises. Always make sure the instructor is aware of your cancer and do not perform any movements that cause you pain.

Talking therapies

Living with a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer can be extremely challenging both physically and emotionally. Whilst family, friends and loved ones can be an invaluable source of support, you may find that there are some things that you feel unable to voice or talk through with them for fear of worrying or upsetting them. Sharing these thoughts and feelings with someone else, whether a counsellor, psychologist or your doctor or nurse, can help to ease the burden and guide you in finding ways of managing and coping with difficult emotions.

There are a wide range of so-called talking therapies which can help you to do just this. See our section on Psychological well-being for further information.

Yoga

Similar to Tai Chi and Chi Gung, yoga involves gentle, controlled movements, positions, stretches and breathing, as well as an element of mindful meditation. It is an increasingly popular practice and many people find it benefits them both physically and mentally. There is also evidence to support its efficacy in relieving symptoms such as pain, fatigue, anxiety and depression in cancer. Whilst some smaller scale studies have found evidence for the efficacy of yoga in managing menopausal symptoms, further research is needed.

Whilst yoga is generally safe for women living with secondary breast cancer to perform, some of the positions may need to be adapted depending on where your cancer has spread and how much pain you are experiencing in different areas. An experienced yoga teacher will be able to instruct you on this.

Speak to your doctor (or, if you have one, your breast cancer nurse) before trying yoga. They may also be able to direct you to some NHS or charity-run classes in your local area.

Further information

Macmillan have an online database where you can search for a range of organisations offering a vast range of information and support, including complementary therapies. Simply type in ‘complementary therapies’.  They also have a wide range of information relating to complementary therapies on their website.

Penny Brohn and Maggie’s Centres cancer charities have a range of information relating to complementary therapies on their websites.

You can also call the Macmillan support line and speak to one of their advisers about the use of complementary therapies and where to access them.

Page last updated: April 2020