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The Best Alternative Treatments for Cancer Pain

As therapies like acupuncture, massage and yoga gain wider acceptance, there's no reason to suffer in silence

By Andrea King Collier

When Diane Wilson of Dallas received her diagnosis of Stage IIB breast cancer in 2011, she opted to have a double mastectomy and endured several difficult months of chemotherapy and radiation. "I knew that I would have some pain because of the extent of the surgery," says Wilson, now 58. "But I didn't think about the pain that would come during treatment and beyond. It wasn't until I got involved in a breast cancer support group that I got an idea of how to manage it."

(MORE: How I Finally Put an End to My Chronic Pain)

One in 3 people living with cancer experiences some level of pain while being treated. But according to a report from the European Oncology Nursing Society, many never seek or receive the proper treatment to address it. Some assume that pain is a natural byproduct of their care they just have to live with. Others are not made aware by their doctors of the range of options available for pain relief, including alternative medicine.

To prescribe the most appropriate treatment, doctors need to take the time to help patients gauge the level of pain they're experiencing. Many fail to do so. Even as techniques for relief have improved, says Dr. Michael Fisch, chairman of the Department of General Oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, "It hasn't gotten much easier to have the conversations because there is more to talk about and generally there is less time in the office visits."

Treatments Go Mainstream

Alternative treatments that can help address patients' discomfort include hands-on treatments like acupuncture, massage and myofascial release; medicinal approaches, like herbal remedies and vitamin supplements; and mind-and-body practices, including meditation, visualization and relaxation.

(MORE: Speed Up Your Recovery by Relaxing)

But the boundaries between alternative and traditional treatments are not absolute, especially as certain practices become more widely accepted. Strictly speaking, alternative medicine refers to therapies that replace conventional or Western treatments, while "complementary" or integrative medicine applies to treatments used in combination with conventional medicine.

The Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or OCCAM, part of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, funds studies on treatments that can produce better outcomes and shares information with the public about diverse approaches to care.

Sometimes, a doctor points patients toward complementary treatments. Wilson's physician, for example, helped her find a yoga class designed for breast cancer patients when she experienced pain after surgery. The discomfort was attributed to swelling from lymphedema, the accumulation of excess lymph fluid, typically in an arm or leg. It's frequently experienced by breast cancer patients, as one's risk increases when lymph nodes are removed. Also, radiation therapy can scar nodes, helping to trigger lymphedema.

"I went to yoga twice a week, throughout chemo and radiation, and it helped so much," Wilson says. "I think I got back on my feet a lot faster because I took the time to practice yoga. It was hard some days, but I still did my practice. Yoga even helped me learn to control my breathing to reduce post-chemo nausea and vomiting."

Wilson also employed the visualization techniques she learned in her support group during chemotherapy sessions. "They taught us to think about chemo as an army doing battle with all the bad cancer cells," she says. "It helped to take away some of the fear of the unknown and to make me feel like I was doing some of the work of fighting this thing."

More local hospitals and clinics are incorporating such treatments into a multidiscipline approach to relieve side effects of cancer care, including fatigue, anxiety and pain. According to a 2010 University of Pennsylvania study, nearly 70 percent of comprehensive cancer centers now offer information on complementary therapies, at least on their websites.


Mike Davis, 60, of New York City, was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago. After treatments, he says, "I was tired all the time and my knee joints hurt. It was bad enough that I had cancer, but my quality of life was pretty awful."
(MORE: I Was a Breast Cancer Support Group Dropout)

His medical team's plan included massage therapy and yoga to increase flexibility and mobility. "These are things that I have since included in my day-to-day life," he says, "and it has made a difference, both in my stamina and in my outlook."

Meditation, Acupuncture and More

Many oncologists recommend meditation and relaxation techniques to help address discomfort caused by the stress and anxiety surrounding treatment, says Barrie Cassileth, Ph.D., chief of the integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "Meditation has also proved effective beyond cancer," she says, "providing relief to people living with chronic illnesses, such as back pain, arthritis, diabetes and hypertension."

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 8 million Americans already use acupuncture to help manage conditions that cause chronic pain, like arthritis. "Like any other treatment, acupuncture does not work for everyone, but it can be extraordinarily helpful for many," Cassileth says. "Acupuncture can control a number of distressing symptoms, including shortness of breath, anxiety and depression, nausea and vomiting, chronic fatigue, pain, neuropathy and osteoarthritis."

Many cancer patients have embraced acupuncture as well. "It has been used to treat symptoms with success," says Cassileth, who is recruiting breast cancer patients for a study of acupuncture's effectiveness in treating lymphedema.

(MORE: Why Acupuncture Deserves a Closer Look)

Patients seeking alternative treatments on their own should be sure to find licensed practitioners certified by professional organizations like the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, Cassileth says.

It's also essential to discuss any alternative plan with a doctor before starting it, the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine advises. Be sure to find out if a new therapy might interfere with prescribed medications or if there are any other potential risks or side effects. In addition, you should look into whether your insurance covers expenses — as alternative treatments have become widely accepted, more companies have begun to pay for therapies like massage and acupuncture.

Photograph of Andrea King Collier
Andrea King Collier is a journalist and author based in Lansing, Mich. Read More
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