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Complementary and alternative medicine in breast cancer patients

  • ZEINA NAHLEH (a1) (a2) and IMAD A. TABBARA (a3)

Objective: Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is becoming increasingly popular among cancer patients, in particular those with breast cancer. It represents one of the fastest growing treatment modalities in the United States. Therefore, knowledge of CAM therapies is becoming necessary for physicians and other health care providers. CAM encompasses a wide range of modalities including special diet and nutrition, mind–body approaches, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Methods: We reviewed the biomedical literature on CAM use in breast cancer patients, using Medline search from 1975 until 2002. In addition, consensus reports and books on CAM and breast cancer were included in the review. We evaluated the prevalence of CAM use in breast cancer patients, the reasons cited for its use, the different available modalities, and the reported outcomes.

Results: Use of CAM in breast cancer patients ranges between 48% and 70% in the United States. The most commonly used CAM modalities include dietary supplements, mind–body approaches, and acupuncture. The reasons cited for using CAM were to boost the immune system, improve the quality of life, prevent recurrence of cancer, provide control over life, and treat breast cancer and the side effects of treatment. Several studies reported favorable results including improved survival, better pain control, reduced anxiety, improvement in coping strategies and significant efficacy in treating nausea and vomiting. Other less well-organized trials have reported either no benefit or negative effect of CAM and potential toxicity of some commercial products.

Significance of results: CAM is a growing field in health care and particularly among breast cancer patients. Knowledge of CAM by physicians, especially oncologists, is necessary. Oncologists should be willing to discuss the role of CAM with their patients and encourage patients to participate in well-organized research about CAM.

Corresponding author
Corresponding author: Imad A. Tabbara, University of Virginia Health System, Division of Hematology/Oncology, P.O. Box 800716, Charlottesville, VA 22908-0716. E-mail:
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