Firstly, we need to distinguish the difference between complementary therapy and alternative therapy.
Complementary therapy is what is used in conjunction with conventional medicine (chemotherapy, surgery, etc) to help you through the different stages of your cancer journey. For example, yoga, meditation, massage, etc.
Alternative therapy is when a patient decides against any conventional treatment and only uses natural therapies. These natural therapies, or supplements, can be anything from vitamins, minerals, herbs, weight loss aids and the famous cannabis.
With social media and easy access to the internet, we are exposed to a lot of websites and articles that promise ‘cures’ or other treatments. The problem with most of this information is it’s not backed by reliable research studies. It’s very easy to write a non-reliable research article and add fancy words, like scientific, or make a YouTube video. If we see a picture of a unicorn on Facebook, we don’t believe it is real. So, why are we so susceptible to believing articles that we read on social media?
When diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness we turn to Google (I myself am guilty of using Dr Google). We panic and search the internet looking for more information on our diagnosis and treatments. Then, well-meaning family and friends give their advice; the scenario of “I know somebody whose aunt used this and it worked.” But we must remember, there are many different types of breast cancer and factors that come into play, like the tumour’s personality (biology).
Patients often tend to forget to mention to their treating doctors the supplements they are taking. Mostly, the two reasons being: “It’s natural, it won’t do anything.” or “I’m scared he/she thinks I’m crazy to use natural therapies as well.”
Remember, your doctor needs to know everything you take, including your simple vitamin C supplement. Just because it’s natural, does not mean your brain tells your body, “It’s natural, redirect it on a different route.” Natural supplements get broken down the same way other conventional medicines do.
Most of us are guilty of overdosing on supplements. We walk into any pharmacy, looking for supplements to help with stress, energy, healthy hair, etc. But we don’t read the labels properly and quite often it’s mostly all the same ingredients. To which this can have various side effects on our bodies. We then blame these side effects on other factors and not on the supplements because we believe they are natural and can’t harm us.
We don’t take antibiotics if we don’t need them. We don’t take painkillers if we don’t need them. So, don’t put supplements in your body if you don’t need them. Your body will just excrete it out, leading to what some refer to as expensive urine.
A lot of these natural therapies can interfere with chemotherapy, radiation, hormone blockades (e.g. tamoxifen), or even increase your bleeding risk when undergoing surgery.
Some natural therapies can make the chemotherapy less effective but more toxic, while others can promote oestrogen (not so good news for the hormone-sensitive breast cancers).
So, is it all bad?
Definitely, not! With our busy and stressful lifestyles, we are not as healthy as we should be. And, we all know the effect stress can have on the body. Supplements do have their place during certain times in your cancer journey. But, what might be fine during your chemotherapy might not be fine when you are recovering from surgery.
Also, don’t panic when you are about to start chemotherapy or radiation. You might not experience all the side effects, or they may be a little easier for you to manage. I’ve seen ladies sail through chemotherapy.
Rather see how your body reacts to the different therapies. If you do experience side effects, there are various complimentary therapies that you can use e.g. reflexology, acupuncture etc. as well as supplements. But you must discuss with your treating doctor before you start.
I am currently the head of research at the Netcare Breast Care Centre and the C.O.O of the Pink Parasol Project, a website based directory listing conventional and complementary therapists and practitioners. I have an interest in complementary health and educating women about supplement use and complementary therapy during their cancer journey. I’m a mom of three, Victoria, Isabella and Christopher, who are my life and love. My girls have chronic illnesses and they have taught me about courage and strength.
My contact details are
Telephone 011 480 5673
Cell: 082 887 8268