It’s no secret that using self-care techniques are helpful for healthy living. After a cancer diagnosis, it’s an imperative part of daily recovery. Many of those with a breast cancer diagnosis recognize they can rely on additional sources outside their doctors’ offices to further their wellness journey. When she was going through treatment for breast cancer, Linda Carey, founder of The Tutu Project, leaned on acupuncture to help her healing. Michelle Stravitz, co-founder of the non-profit 2Unstoppable, went straight to yoga class on the day of her diagnosis. Weekly tennis games were like therapy for interior designer and breast cancer survivor Blair Haber. Art teacher Sari Kandel found that Thai massage eased her muscles and reminded her to breathe deep during chemo and beyond.
Until recently, Western medicine had shunned unconventional healing methodologies from a lack of quantifiable evidence connected to these practices. But more and more research protocols have shown that alternative relaxation practices are highly effective in overall healing. “We can actually reduce the baseline level of pain [through] a combination of gentle postures, breath practices, meditation, and mindfulness,” says Kimberly Carson, MPH, and mindfulness and yoga therapist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR, where studies in women with metastatic breast cancer have been developed and conducted.
As you go through diagnosis, treatments, surgeries, and aftercare, there’s no reason that you can’t incorporate some alternative treatments into your traditional medical care. Check with your doctor if you are feeling uncertain about interactions, then calm your mind, quell your anxiety, and rejuvenate your body with some of these natural healing therapies.
Yoga and Meditation – Through slowing and deepening the breath, enhancing awareness and attention, and engaging the body in various postures, yoga and meditation can increase energy levels, release tension, help fatigue, and give practitioners a better overall quality of life. These Eastern traditions have been continuing to gain acceptance in Western medicine, healthcare systems, and science communities as a way to mitigate the side effects of cancer and its myriad treatments. During cancer treatments, look for classes with gentle movements that invite states of conscious exploration that go way beyond postures.
Ayurveda – Considered the world’s oldest medical system, Ayurveda, the science of yoga, is a personalized approach based on the union of body, mind, and spirit that treats the full body rather than just the condition. In classical Ayurvedic texts, dating as far back as the 6th century BCE, cancer is described as Arbuda, meaning lump or mass in its malignant state. “Through the implementation of various protocols, including lifestyle choices, nutrition, and herbs, Ayurveda can help the body and mind recover from conventional modern approaches to cancer by rebuilding immunity and dispelling the fear and anxiety that often comes with aggressive treatments,” says Jill Talve, Clinical Ayurveda Specialist and master teacher at the California College of Ayurveda, with a private practice in Long Island, NY.
Acupuncture –This Chinese practice of inserting fine needles through the skin at strategic points and energy channels in the body can help relieve pain and other symptoms associated with breast cancer and its treatments. Many cancer centers offer acupuncture as part of a multidisciplinary program that creates wellness plans tailored to patient’s specific goals, such as relieving joint discomfort.
Art Therapy – Creative pursuits can be used to express deep and, oftentimes, unconscious concerns, especially during cancer. Exploring personal expression rather than creating something sell-worthy is the goal of art therapy, and this methodology can help make peace with intense emotions. Art Therapy is more than just adult coloring books or freestyle painting; but is an integrative mental health approach that uses applied psychological theory and human experience.
Essential Oils –Aromatherapy uses essential oils to ease the psychological and physical stress after a breast cancer diagnosis, relaxing mind, body, and soul. Although no studies say that essential oils prevent or can treat cancer, aromatherapy can complement standard medical treatments by helping to manage side effects such as pain, insomnia, anxiety, and nausea and take your olfactory senses into a state of bliss. Talk to your healthcare team before using essential oils or check with National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy to find a reliable practitioner.
Tai Chi and Qi Gong – These ancient Chinese practices are transformative moving meditations that incorporate fluid movements to harness the positive energy of your life force. They can help reduce inflammation, improve lung function and breathing efficacy, and ease daily exercises like walking, bending, and reaching. Qi Gong is traditionally used for therapeutic purposes and can be tailored to specific needs, such as stimulating the lymph system, which can help with lymphedema. Tai Chi’s gentle movements can reduce pain from chronic conditions. Both have mental and emotional benefits that can help cancer patients thrive in a new “normal.”
Reiki – As an integrative wellness modality, Reiki is a gentle, non-invasive support to any healing protocol. “By connecting with and amplifying the healing mechanisms already within the body, Reiki can support immune function, calm the nervous system, and in many cases, speed up the healing process,” says Kristin Orsini-Walker, Reiki master teacher and spiritual life coach. This Japanese form of energy healing aims to improve the flow of energy in a similar way to acupuncture. Practitioners place their hands lightly over the client’s body in specific positions for several minutes without any manipulation nor pressure. Oftentimes holding their hands just above the body – to facilitate energy flow.
Guided Imagery – “My daily yoga practice includes visioning,” says Naomi Weiner, a triple-negative breast cancer survivor. “I think and plan a bright future, all while breathing and moving through the poses. It helps me find great peace.” Visualization and guided Imagery can help patients soften their preconceived notions and other difficulties that the mind holds on to. Psychotherapists often use these techniques, but they can be simplified and self-taught as a daily relaxation tool to help reduce pain and suffering.
Massage and Thai Massage – It is common to experience muscle tension and discomfort after a breast cancer diagnosis – massage is a great way to heal everyday stresses. Traditional massage therapists use their hands to apply pressure in rhythmic strokes, while Thai massage practitioners utilize stretching techniques and movements that manipulate their clients’ bodies through a series of positions that echo a gentle yoga practice. Reflexology, which also works on energy pathways, is another massage option that involves applying gentle pressure to the feet. Consult your doctor to ensure which type of massage is best for you – many cancer centers offer these options for patients during treatments.
“[Alternative therapies] helped me strengthen during chemo,” Carey adds. “Spiritually, emotionally, physically, it helped bring me peace.”
After a breast cancer diagnosis, having a say in your care can be empowering and a great benefit to the healing process. Check with healthcare providers when considering these and other complementary healing modalities.