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Natural breast cancer treatment vs. conventional treatment: What patients need to know

Breast cancer treatments
Weighing natural breast cancer treatment vs. conventional treatment? Read this before making a decision.

If you’re like most women who’ve recently received a breast cancer diagnosis, you’re probably trying to learn everything you can about your treatment options and the range of potential side effects. You may recall friends or family members who had a difficult experience with chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery for breast cancer. What you’ve read about side effects may sound unpleasant and scary. Many women wonder whether “natural” or “alternative” treatments for breast cancer could work for them instead.

It's normal to want to explore all your options, particularly if you’re concerned about the side effects of conventional breast cancer treatment. Friends or family may even recommend that you try certain alternatives, like salves or vitamin infusions, instead of conventional treatment. On the other hand, your loved ones may be alarmed if you’re considering rejecting conventional treatment altogether.

Patients sometimes come to us for a second opinion for breast cancer after having tried to treat their cancer with alternative therapies. Others ask questions, like:

  • Will chemotherapy kill all the healthy cells in my body?
  • Will changing my diet help?
  • Can I apply a salve to make the cancer go away?
  • Can we use medical marijuana to treat cancer?
  • Can IV infusions of vitamin C or other nutrients cure cancer?

It's understandable that you may have these questions and concerns. Many women are hoping to find a gentle way to fight their cancer.

At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), we incorporate supportive care therapies, many of which are “natural,” in our integrative approach to cancer treatment—not to treat the cancer, but to help patients manage side effects of cancer and its treatment and to improve their quality of life. But scientific research has shown that it’s necessary to use conventional, standard-of-care treatments to attack the disease itself.

Many patients are unaware that conventional breast cancer treatment has come a long way over the past two decades. For example, did you know that not everyone needs chemotherapy or a mastectomy? Or that radiation therapy and surgical techniques are much more precise than ever before? Or that genomic testing may reveal targeted therapy or immunotherapy treatment options that may be appropriate for you?

And even if you do need these treatments, shortened treatment periods and reduced dosages, along with the greater range of drugs that are now available, may help reduce the side effects patients experienced 10 or 20 years ago.

To help you navigate your breast cancer treatment options, this article will cover:

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and would like to talk to someone at CTCA® about our integrative approach to breast cancer treatment, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

Natural therapies breast cancer patients often consider and how to evaluate them

What exactly do we mean when we refer to “natural,” “alternative treatments” or “conventional treatment”? Before we continue our discussion, it may be helpful to define some terms used by patients and medical providers when discussing types of treatments or therapies.

The National Cancer Institute (NIH) provides these definitions:

  • Standard treatments are based on scientific evidence from research studies.
  • Alternative medicine refers to techniques that are used instead of standard medical treatments.
  • Complementary medicine refers to options that are used with standard medical treatments.
  • Integrative medicine is a total approach to care that combines standard medical treatment with the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices that have been shown to be safe and effective in attempting to address the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of patients’ health.

Standard treatment, which may also be known as “standard of care” or “conventional treatment,” includes treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy and precision medicine.

When patients talk about “natural treatment,” they’re usually referring to complementary therapies or alternative treatments, such as botanicals, dietary supplements, acupuncture or cannabis, that aren’t part of the accepted standard of care for treating cancer.

At CTCA, we don’t treat cancer using complementary therapies or alternative treatments. Instead, our collaborative team of clinicians use standard treatments to treat the cancer itself, while using evidence-informed supportive care therapies to help combat cancer-related side effects. We refer to this approach as integrative care. 

A couple commonly considered natural treatments for breast cancer

We understand that you may have concerns about conventional cancer treatment and may be looking for more natural ways to fight cancer. But even natural approaches may be harmful in certain amounts and in certain situations.

Below are two approaches we’re aware of patients using or considering to treat their breast cancer. Although some may be beneficial in helping you tolerate conventional treatment, there's no reliable scientific evidence that they’re effective treatments on their own.

Medical marijuana: No scientific studies provide evidence that cannabis or CBD oil can “cure,” or even treat, cancer, and the NIH notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved cannabis as a medical treatment. FDA approved cannabinoid prescription medications, however, may help treat side effects of cancer and its treatment, such as loss of appetite, neuropathic pain, nausea and vomiting.

Intermittent fasting: Intermittent fasting, or only eating during specific time periods within a day or a week, has become a popular approach to weight loss. Some researchers have proposed that it may also provide certain health benefits, such as yielding some protection against chronic diseases and reducing systemic inflammation. Fasting, however, often causes fatigue, insomnia, nausea and headaches—effects that may be difficult for patients to tolerate on top of the effects of cancer and its treatment. Whether this is advisable for you depends on your specific situation. Talk to your care team if you’re considering intermittent fasting.

Research shows that patients who choose complementary medicine are more likely to delay or reject some types of conventional treatment, which results in worse cancer outcomes. Another study that included women with nonmetastatic breast cancer who initially chose alternative medicine instead of conventional cancer treatment showed those women had more than a fivefold increased risk of death.

If cancer continues unchecked, it's like a house fire. Trying to treat it solely with natural therapies is like trying to put out a house fire with a water hose. That's why we recommend evidence-based, conventional treatment. In some cases, the side effects of that treatment may be unpleasant, but the worst side effect is for treatable, localized breast cancer to progress to metastatic cancer that’s much more difficult and expensive to treat.

Cancer research and the scientific method: How to evaluate alternative treatments for breast cancer

When considering your treatment options, it’s important to understand that cancer researchers and doctors conduct their work within the rigorous framework of the scientific method. They systematically add to our knowledge of various types of cancer cells and how those cells respond to treatment by conducting carefully controlled experiments. At each stage of the process, they thoroughly document their methods and their results so other researchers at other institutions can copy, or “replicate,” the studies to verify or dispute the findings. The most promising results are published in peer-reviewed journals.

No matter who your provider is, you should ask for scientific evidence behind any strategies they suggest:

  • Can they share published scientific studies that explain the effectiveness of the treatment?
  • Were those studies conducted on animals, on breast cancer cells in the lab, or on humans in clinical trials?
  • Are the treatments they provide approved by the FDA? If not, why not?
  • Are the treatments they provide listed in the National Comprehensive Cancer Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology? If not, why not?

There’s a big difference between rigorous, peer-reviewed studies and a few anecdotal “success stories.” Anyone can claim to have a miracle cure, but when patients come to us with questions about natural treatments for breast cancer, we have to tell them that we haven’t seen any evidence that those methods work. We only recommend evidence-based treatments—and those treatments have advanced significantly over the past two decades precisely because of cancer researchers’ careful and methodical work.

Advances in conventional breast cancer treatment

Breast cancer treatments

Early-stage, localized breast cancer is highly treatable, but not everyone is aware that cancer treatment in general has evolved and improved in the last few years. Advances in breast cancer treatment have improved patient outcomes while also reducing side effects patients may experience during treatment. Below are a few of the most promising developments.

Surgery

Many women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer assume that a mastectomy will be part of their treatment. That isn’t always the case. Research shows that in some women with early-stage cancer in one breast, a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy results in the same survival rates as those who underwent a double mastectomy.

When surgery is necessary, nipple-sparing mastectomy and skin-sparing mastectomy may be possible. A new technology called the MarginProbe® System helps surgeons identify tissue that may be cancerous. Removing it during the lumpectomy typically  reduces the need for future surgeries.

Radiation therapy

Technology used in radiation therapy continues to advance and improve, improving the precision of its delivery and decreasing the duration of treatments.

Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT), for example, is a newer technology that delivers radiation more precisely. With IORT, radiation is delivered directly to the tumor site after a surgeon has removed the tumor. This helps reduce damage to healthy tissue and reduce the time needed for treatment. A 30-minute dose of IORT may be able to replace weeks of traditional radiation therapy.

Precision medicine

Genomic testing (not to be confused with genetic testing) may help inform your care team as to the appropriate treatment regimen for your specific cancer. If you’re a candidate, the DNA of your tumor’s cancer cells can be isolated and sequenced. Scientists can then look for genetic abnormalities and genomic alterations that may open up precision medicine treatment options, such as targeted drug therapies or immunotherapy.

Genetic testing may also be useful in helping predict the likelihood of breast cancer recurrence, which also affects your treatment options. If the risk of your cancer recurrence is low, you may be a candidate for receiving hormone therapy instead of chemotherapy. On the other hand, if the risk of your cancer recurring is high, your oncologist may be more likely to recommend chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy may be used before and/or after surgery, but it isn’t always necessary. Genomic testing may reveal whether your tumor is likely to respond to specific chemotherapy drugs.  

When chemotherapy is recommended, we have many more drug options to choose from now than ever before, and researchers have worked to reduce their toxicity. Anti-nausea medications have also improved over the years. Oral chemotherapy is another option for some patients.

Combining integrative therapies with conventional cancer treatment

Breast cancer treatments

Supportive care modalities, including nutritional and naturopathic support, may help prevent and manage potential side effects of cancer and its treatment. These evidence-informed services may improve your quality of life during treatment and help prepare you for survivorship. If you’re interested in both natural and conventional cancer treatment, consider this combination of care.

Access to integrative care is part of every patient’s care at CTCA. We treat the whole person by incorporating integrative care modalities with a wide range of diagnostic tools and comprehensive treatment options, all under one roof. It’s all part of treating our patients like we’d treat our own family members, a principle we call the “Mother Standard® of care.”

Supportive care services we offer to our patients include:

Nutritional support helps patients understand the importance of nutrition during cancer treatment, with the goal of helping patients stay strong and nourished throughout treatment and of supporting the immune system. Patients have the option of meeting with a registered dietitian to address their specific needs and challenges.

Naturopathic support from our naturopathic team may help you determine which (if any) dietary supplements, herbal and botanical preparations and other naturopathic approaches may help you. They can also help you avoid those that are known to be harmful when taken with certain medications and in certain conditions.

Behavioral health includes counseling, stress-reduction techniques and other strategies to help patients and their caregivers understand and manage the challenges posed by cancer and its treatment. Examples of services we offer include relaxation techniques, art therapy, music therapy and animal-assisted therapy.

Oncology rehabilitation includes physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. Therapists familiar with your particular cancer type and treatment approach work to prevent and manage common side effects. Lymphedema, for example, is a potential side effect of breast cancer surgery when lymph nodes have to be removed. Prevention techniques include educating patients about warning signs and taking steps to reduce the chances of experiencing the condition.

Pain management methods have improved over the years. Prescription medications, implanted pain pumps and nerve block therapies may be recommended to help control pain. Strategies for pain management without drugs include meditation and nutritional support. 

Spiritual support is available to patients and family members, with options that include counseling, prayer services and ceremonies, prayer groups and access to the Health, Hope & Inspiration podcast.

Integrative care is particularly helpful when it’s part of your continuum of care, and when your entire cancer care team communicates regularly and works together to help meet your needs. This integrative approach to cancer treatment is at the heart of our treatment philosophy. We only treat cancer at CTCA, so our doctors and care teams are experts in treating cancer and its side effects.

Having your oncologist, nutritionist, counselor, naturopathic provider and other experts all under one roof makes sense for two main reasons. First, it’s more comfortable and convenient for you to access conventional and integrative options in one place, rather than having to drive (or ask a caregiver to drive you) from location to location. Secondly, it’s easier for your providers to coordinate your care. When conventional oncologists and integrative care providers work together day in and day out, they can more easily share information on your progress, make changes to your regimen to keep you safe and coordinate appointments and other logistics.

If you aren't a patient at CTCA, ask whether supportive care services are offered where you’re being treated, or consider seeking them out in your community.

Additional considerations before making a treatment decision

So, how do you go about evaluating treatment options you’re comfortable with that will also provide you with the long-term outcome you’re hoping for? Being aware of advances in conventional treatment and the importance of incorporating integrated therapies is an important first step.

Other recommendations include:

Ask questions of any provider you’re seeing to be sure you understand your options and associated risks. Your care provider’s job is to make informed recommendations based on the best available science and your unique situation. You then have the right to accept them, refuse them or ask whether there are alternatives.

Consider getting a second opinion. It’s perfectly fine to seek a second opinion before making such an important decision. In fact, a second opinion may be a good way to investigate a cancer center that provides advanced conventional treatment while also offering access to integrative care.

You need to feel comfortable with your care providers and confident in your treatment plan. If integrative care is important to you, and if you’re interested in combining supportive care services with conventional cancer treatment, seek out a conventional oncologist who understands and appreciates the value of these options. Ask questions to ensure he or she is willing to work with the naturopathic and/or other members you’ve assembled for your healing team.

If you’re trying to assemble your own integrative care team, look for providers who have experience working with cancer patients. They’re more likely to be familiar with potential side effects and challenges of treatment.

If you’re struggling to find appropriate providers in your area, you may be able to access some services virtually. For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Find a Nutrition Expert searchable database offers both “in-person” and “telehealth” options. You may also be able to find behavioral health providers and support groups for cancer patients that offer online sessions. 

Open communication is a key component of building trust. At any point in your cancer journey, you have the right to schedule a visit with your doctor to express concerns about side effects or about your experience in general. With so many drug options for breast cancer, your doctor may be able to try another medication if one isn’t working as expected.

If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, you can be assured that, in most cases, you have excellent conventional therapies that are grounded in science and backed by evidence. Combining those with access to evidence-informed side-effect management approaches may provide the solution you’re looking for.

We’re here to help you explore your options. If you’d like to schedule an appointment for a second opinion at CTCA, call us or chat online with a member of our team.