Meditation and Yoga May Ease Breast Cancer Anxiety

Breast cancer alternative therapies evaluated for safety and effectiveness in new guidelines

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are all common ways to fight breast cancer. While complementary therapies may not directly treat cancer, many may relieve related worry and stress.

Newly published guidelines provide a report on the safety and effectiveness of more than 80 “alternative” therapies. Meditation, yoga and relaxation with imagery received the highest marks.

In an interview with dailyRx News, Peter Strong, PhD, a professional mindfulness-based psychotherapist offering online therapy via Skype and author of "The Path of Mindfulness Meditation," explained why meditation specifically may be a useful tool for breast cancer patients.

"Meditation, at its core, describes a process of changing the relationship that we have toward our thoughts and emotions," said Dr. Strong. "When we develop a conscious and compassionate relationship with the emotions associated with a diagnosis of cancer, we are less likely to become embroiled in the uncontrolled negative thinking and rumination that exacerbates anxiety."

Many breast cancer patients use complementary therapies along with their standard cancer care to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. There are scores of options, such as meditation, yoga, massage, music therapy, acupuncture, hypnosis, tai chi and botanicals. Some patients may have trouble deciding which techniques to use.

The Society for Integrative Oncology issued the new report. The research was done by investigators at several institutions, such as Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center in New York City.

"Most breast cancer patients have experimented with integrative therapies to manage symptoms and improve quality of life,” said report author Heather Greenlee, ND, PhD, professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and president of the Society for Integrative Oncology, in a press release. “But of the dozens of products and practices marketed to patients, we found evidence that only a handful currently have a strong evidence base.”

"These guidelines provide an important tool for breast cancer patients and their clinicians as they make decisions on what integrative therapies to use and not use,” Dr. Greenlee added.

The guidelines authors looked at results from 203 studies of complementary treatments paired with standard cancer therapies. Based on their assessment, meditation, yoga and relaxation with imagery earned an “A” grade for routine treatment of anxiety and mood disorders common to breast cancer patients.

Relaxation with imagery is a way to use the imagination to create calm, peaceful images in the mind.

Those three techniques received a “B” grade for reducing stress, depression and fatigue. Massage and music therapy also earned a “B” in this category. Acupuncture received a "B" grade for controlling chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. All therapies that received a “B” were still recommended for most patients.

Dr. Greenlee and team assigned a "C" grade to 32 therapies. These treatments had weaker evidence of benefit but could still help. For instance, acupuncture had mixed results in improving quality of life. Healing touch received a “C” for improving mood in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Healing touch is a therapy said to focus on touch to restore energy and promote healing.

A “D” grade was assigned to seven therapies. These treatments were deemed unlikely to provide any benefit. For instance, soy extracts could not be recommended to prevent or treat hot flashes in breast cancer survivors. Hot flashes happen to some breast cancer patients who enter menopause early due to chemotherapy. Aloe vera gel could not be endorsed to help soothe skin reactions from radiation therapy.

Dr. Greenlee and colleagues did find one treatment to be harmful. Acetyl-l-carnitine, which is sold to prevent a type of neuropathy, was found to increase neuropathy. Neuropathy is a nerve disorder that causes weakness or numbness.

Over 80 percent of breast cancer patients in the US use some type of complementary therapy following a breast cancer diagnosis, the study authors wrote.

The report was published online Nov. 5 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute Monograph.

The Society for Integrative Oncology funded the research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
November 6, 2014
Last Updated:
March 12, 2015