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Types of complementary therapies

Learn about the types of complementary therapies you may find useful during and after breast cancer treatment, including reiki, yoga and mindfulness.

1. Complementary therapies and breast cancer

Most complementary therapies are safe for people with breast cancer. However, if you are considering complementary therapies, speak to your treatment team first.

Your treatment team may advise you to avoid certain complementary therapies if there’s a chance they may affect how your breast cancer treatment works.

It's worth trying complementary therapies if you are offered or able to access them, as they really can help with mental health and just making you feel more relaxed and in the moment.

Sarah

2. Touch therapies

Touch therapies and lymphoedema

Too much pressure can sometimes trigger or make existing worse.

It’s best to avoid firm pressure to certain areas of the body after some breast cancer surgery or treatments. Speak to the therapist about this before starting any therapies.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves inserting very fine needles into the skin at various points on the body.

Traditional acupuncturists believe health problems are caused by an imbalance or blockage in the flow of energy – known as ‘chi’ – in the body. They believe acupuncture can help release these blockages.

Western medical acupuncture looks at stimulating nerves to release natural chemicals, such as endorphins.

Having acupuncture should not be painful but can be uncomfortable. The points where the needles are inserted may vary depending on your individual situation.

If you have had surgery to the lymph nodes under the arm, acupuncture needles should not be placed in the arm or hand on the affected side.

Acupuncture may be used to help with:

  • Nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting (being sick), often caused by chemotherapy
  • Menopausal symptoms
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Improving mood and general wellbeing

I was offered auricular [ear] acupuncture which can help with hot flushes. I was given these six sessions free at the holistic care centre attached to my hospital. They are non-medical, calming and felt such a treat.

Karen

Acupressure and shiatsu 

An acupressure therapist will use their fingers to apply moderate pressure to specific points of the body.

The word ‘shiatsu’ means finger pressure. A shiatsu therapist will often use their fingers, thumbs and palms to apply deeper pressure to these points. They will sometimes also use their elbows, knees and feet to massage and stretch the body’s muscles and joints.

As with acupuncture, traditional acupressure is based on the belief that this will release blockages in the flow of energy – or ‘qi’ – through the body.

If you’ve had surgery to the lymph nodes under your arm, avoid deep tissue massage to that arm, hand, chest or breast area.

Acupressure and shiatsu may be used to help with:

  • Nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting (being sick)
  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Stress and anxiety

Massage

Massage therapists use their hands to apply gentle strokes, stretches and pressure to the body’s muscles and joints. They can massage your whole body, or focus on one area such as your shoulders, head, hands or feet.

Some therapists use essential oils for the massage to help you relax. This is known as aromatherapy massage.

If you’re having treatment for breast cancer, an experienced therapist will adapt the massage. This may mean applying a lighter pressure and avoiding specific areas of your body.

If you’ve had surgery to the lymph nodes under your arm, avoid deep tissue massage to that arm, hand, chest or breast area.

Some people believe you should not have a massage if you’ve had cancer because there’s a risk of spreading cancer cells from one part of the body to another. There’s no evidence to support this idea.

If you have any pain or discomfort from surgery, your therapist can provide extra cushions to protect any areas of discomfort or adjust your position.

If you have pain in your arm or shoulder during the massage, ask your therapist to stop.

If you have recently completed radiotherapy, check with your treatment team if it’s safe for you to have a massage on the area that's been treated.

Massage may be used to:

  • Relieve muscle tension and stiffness
  • Relax your mind and body
  • Improve circulation
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Reduce pain
  • Improve scar tissue

I had aromatherapy massages which really helped my aches and pains and generally allowed me to forget about what I was going through. I found the days I had a therapy I was able to sleep much better and didn’t find myself lying awake worrying.

Karen

I have found massage very helpful to ease the pain after surgery and long-term side effects.

Bal

3. Energy therapies

There are several energy therapies, including Reiki and therapeutic touch. When these therapies are used in a spiritual way, this is called spiritual or faith healing.

Reiki is based on the ancient belief that our health is linked to the flow of energy in the body. Therapists believe energy flows through the therapist to the person being treated to help release any blockages and improve wellbeing.

You can either sit or lie down, fully clothed, while the therapist places their hands above or on certain parts of the body.

You may start to feel very relaxed during the treatment, and this may last for some time after the session has finished.

Some cancer support centres have group Reiki sessions where several people are treated at once.

Energy therapies may be used for:

  • Relaxation
  • Reducing stress
  • General wellbeing

Reiki has also been found to be effective at reducing stress in people caring for someone with cancer.

Reflexology

Reflexology uses finger pressure to stimulate the reflexes and nerves in the feet, and sometimes the hands.

It’s based on the belief that different areas of the feet link to different areas of the body. Reflexologists believe that by applying pressure to those areas of the feet, it can restore health in the linked parts of the body.

During reflexology you will be lying down or sitting in a reclining chair.

Reflexology may be used to help with symptoms including:

  • Nausea (feeling sick)
  • Pain
  • Stress and anxiety

I had reflexology after my treatment. It was just 30 minutes every week where I could completely relax and try to forget about everything. It was nice to do something relaxing for my body after treatment.

Kayleigh

4. Mind-body

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy uses natural essential oils taken from fragrant plants, flowers, seeds and bark.

Aromatherapists believe different oils have different benefits for your body and mind. They will choose an oil or mixture of oils according to your physical and emotional needs, or you may be asked to choose an oil.

Essential oils can be:

  • Mixed with a base oil to be used in massage
  • Added to a bath
  • Inhaled
  • Evaporated using an oil diffuser
  • Blended with a lotion to be applied to the skin

Essential oils should not be taken by mouth (internally).

Some people think certain oils can be harmful when you have breast cancer. There’s currently not enough evidence to say whether this is correct.

Aromatherapy may be used to help with:

  • Sleep problems
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Stress
  • Feeling more relaxed

Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy uses various techniques to guide you into a deep state of relaxation, known as hypnosis.

During hypnosis you’ll remain conscious, in control and aware of your surroundings. Some people believe being in a state of hypnosis makes your mind more open to accept new ways of thinking, acting and feeling.   

Hypnotherapy may be used to help with:

  • Nausea (feeling sick)
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Hot flushes
  • Lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking

Meditation 

Meditation is an ancient practice of focusing attention and developing a calm state of mind.

Most types of meditation involve concentrated focus, controlled breathing, and developing an awareness of your thoughts and feelings.

Some meditation techniques are spiritual, such as Buddhist meditation, and some are non-spiritual, such as mindfulness meditation.

You can practise meditation alone or as part of a group. 

Meditation may help with:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Reducing stress
  • Chronic pain
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling more relaxed and in control

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment to try to reduce stress and improve quality of life.

Practising mindfulness involves becoming more aware of the sights, smells, sounds and tastes around you, as well as the thoughts and feelings that happen from one moment to the next. 

The most well-researched form of mindfulness is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which combines mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy. Your breast care nurse, treatment team or GP may be able to refer you to a mindfulness course or MBCT classes in your local area.

Mindfulness may help with:

  • Nausea
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Fatigue
  • Improving your mood

For more information, see the NHS information on mindfulness.

I practise mindfulness on an ongoing basis. It helps me cope with anxiety, get in touch with my inner self and provides that much needed relief.

Bal

Meditation and mindfulness tips

If you’re new to meditation and mindfulness, you may find it easier to listen to a guided meditation, starting with 5 to 10 minutes a day and then building up from there.

You may find the following apps useful:

Some people find practising a hobby that requires deep concentration can have the same stress-relieving effects as meditation.

Try any hobby or activity that keeps your mind focused on what you’re doing, for example colouring in, knitting, painting or cooking. It may be something you already do, or you might want to try a few new activities and see what works for you.

You can also practise mindfulness in your daily life. Focusing attention on your breathing, observing your thoughts, and noticing your immediate surroundings can keep your mind in the present moment.

You may be able to attend a free mindfulness course through the NHS or a local cancer charity. Speak to your breast care nurse or treatment team to find out what options may be available.

I undertook a mindfulness course with a local cancer charity. Mindfulness gave me a strategy to make my mind rest. It taught me how to relax, helped me to switch off at sleep time and appreciate every day more.

Kate

Yoga 

Yoga is a movement practice that comes from ancient India. Yoga uses a combination of stretching, breathing and sometimes meditation to improve physical and emotional strength and wellbeing.

There are many different types of yoga, and you can practise it by yourself at home or with others in a class.

It’s safe to practise yoga once your wounds have healed after surgery and it does not cause you pain.

If you attend a class in person or online, discuss your breast cancer diagnosis and any treatment you have had or are having with the teacher before the class. They will be able to offer advice on any positions to avoid.

Some mild discomfort is normal, but stop doing the exercise if it’s painful.  

Practising yoga may help with:

  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Menopausal symptoms

Tai Chi and Qi Gong

Tai Chi and Qi Gong (also spelled Chi Gung or Chi Kung) are ancient forms of Chinese exercise.

They combine gentle movements with breathing exercises, which some believe help the flow of energy – or ‘chi’ – around the body. They use slow, controlled movements which may help to stretch and strengthen muscles and joints.

Always check with your GP or treatment team before starting any new activity.

Practising Tai Chi or Qi Gong may help with:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • General wellbeing

It’s important to exercise the arm after surgery, so I found yoga and Tai Chi really beneficial.

Abbie

Apps and online tutorials

Apps and YouTube tutorials can be a great way to practise yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong at home.

They can be especially useful if you have fatigue, anxiety or depression and don’t feel able to attend a full class. This will allow you to work at your own pace and build up gradually.

If you’re practising yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong at home, make sure you choose a beginner’s course. Attending face-to-face or online classes means you can get advice on how to practise safely.

5. Herbs and plant extracts

Cannabis and CBD

Cannabis is a plant that has been used for various reasons for thousands of years.

Cannabis contains substances called cannabinoids. The 2 main cannabinoids are:

  • THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)
  • CBD (cannabidiol)

THC is the chemical responsible for most of cannabis’s psychoactive effects (those affecting the mind or behaviour). Its use in the UK is illegal.

CBD does not contain THC, so does not cause these effects and is legal.

You may see CBD for sale in health and wellbeing shops in various forms, including oil, cream, capsules and sprays.

CBD can affect some cancer treatments, so speak to your treatment team before taking any CBD products.

Many cannabis-based products are available to buy online. However, the quality and content of these products are usually not clear, and they may not be safe to use.

CBD may be used to help with:

  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy
  • Sleep problems

Some people believe cannabis can treat cancer. While there have been many studies, there’s currently not enough scientific evidence to support this.

Mistletoe (Iscador)

Mistletoe is a plant that grows on several common trees, such as apple or oak trees.

Mistletoe extract as a medicine can come in the form of tablets, creams or powders, or it can be given as an injection.

Mistletoe therapy is generally considered safe, but it can cause some side effects if taken in large doses.

We currently don’t know the effects of mistletoe therapy on breast cancer treatment, so speak to your treatment team before using it.

Mistletoe may be used to help:

  • Reduce side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy
  • Improve general quality of life

Some people believe mistletoe can treat cancer, but there’s currently no reliable evidence to support this.  

Herbal medicines

Herbal medicines use plants to try to help with a range of health conditions.

There’s conflicting evidence about the safety or effectiveness of some herbal products, and some may affect how certain cancer treatments work. Check with your treatment team or GP before using any herbal medicines.

Herbal medicines are available in a variety of products, including teas, tablets, liquids, and creams or ointments.

In conventional medicine, a number of drugs use active plant ingredients blended together. In herbal medicine the whole plant is often used, including leaves, roots and berries.

There’s currently no evidence to show herbal medicines have any effect on cancer.

The herbal products below may not be suitable if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.

This list is not complete, so always check with your treatment team or GP before using any herbal medicine.

Echinacea 

Echinacea is believed by some to help boost the immune system. However, there’s no reliable evidence to support this idea.

Echinacea can affect how chemotherapy and hormone therapy work or can make you unwell while you are having these treatments. Check with your treatment team or GP before you take it.

St John’s wort 

St John’s wort is used for a variety of health issues.

There’s some evidence that St John’s wort may affect the way certain treatments for breast cancer work. It can also interact with antidepressants. Check with your treatment team or GP before you take it.

Black cohosh

Black cohosh is commonly used to treat menopausal symptoms.

Some people believe it can help treat and prevent cancer. However, there’s no reliable evidence to support this idea.

Black cohosh is not recommended if you have breast cancer. This is because black cohosh can interact with tamoxifen and some chemotherapy drugs.

We currently do not have enough information to know whether black cohosh is safe to take after breast cancer treatment.

Homeopathy 

Homeopathy is the use of very diluted plant or mineral extracts. Some people believe it can stimulate the body’s natural healing processes.

Homeopathic remedies can come in the form of liquids, tablets or creams.

There’s no reliable evidence that homeopathy can effectively treat any health condition.

It’s generally safe to use alongside medical cancer treatments, but check with your treatment team before using any homeopathy products.

Homeopathy may be used to help with:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Relaxation
  • Pain
  • Fatigue

I didn't really know what homeopathy included, and was a bit sceptical to begin with, but I'm so happy I've tried it!

Nicole

During and after treatment are worrying times and your wellbeing is so important. By trying out the therapies I’m sure you will find one, if not a few, that will completely help your physical and psychological state, and help you cope with all that comes with a cancer diagnosis.

Karen

6. Further support

You can find more resources and organisations offering complementary therapies on the Cancer Research UK website

If you would like more information or have any questions about complementary therapies and breast cancer, you can talk to our helpline team on the number below. 

You can also visit our online forum for emotional and practical support.

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Last reviewed in July 2023. The next planned review begins in July 2026.

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