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Women with Breast Cancer Turn to Complementary Medicine


Women who are recovering from breast cancer turn in great numbers to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies. To help women with breast cancer identify which therapies will most benefit them, Michigan State University researcher Gwen Wyatt, of the University’s College of Nursing, is creating a support intervention.

Among a group of more than 200 women with breast cancer, Wyatt found that 57 percent were using CAM therapies, including diet supplements and other biological-based approaches, followed by mind-body therapies involving audiotapes, video, and music therapy. Wyatt also learned that the more ill a woman is, the more likely she is to use several therapies.

Wyatt’s findings are in line with those of a previous study conducted at Columbia University and published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. In that study, the investigators looked at the use of complementary and alternative medicine practices both before and after diagnosis of breast cancer in 1,000 women. They found that in the five years before diagnosis, more than 20 percent of the women used CAM therapies at least weekly, including green tea, omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, prayer, and religion. Immediately following diagnosis, CAM use was 86.1 percent, with 47.5 percent using botanical supplements, 47.2 percent using other natural products, and 64.2 percent using mind-body healing.

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Now Wyatt is developing a decision support intervention for women who have been recently diagnosed with breast cancer and those recovering from surgery. The intervention will include a DVD and booklet that provide information on complementary therapies and their safety and effectiveness. Wyatt is using the results of her study to create this tool for women.

In Wyatt’s study, she found that the more costly therapies, such as acupuncture and therapeutic touch, were used by very few women, while vitamins, homeopathy, and massage were used more frequently. Women were also more likely to use therapies that required fewer rather than more sessions, and that women who did not have at least some college education were less likely to use CAM therapies.

Wyatt noted that many women with breast cancer who are turning to complementary therapies know little about their safety and effectiveness. She believes that these women “could really benefit from information on how to make a wise decision and choose the best therapies,” which would offer them a higher quality of life.

Greenlee H et al. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment 2009 Oct; 117(3): 653-65
Michigan State University news release, Feb. 11, 2010