Research on complementary/alternative medicine for patients with breast cancer: a review of the biomedical literature

J Clin Oncol. 2000 Feb;18(3):668-83. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2000.18.3.668.


Purpose: This article reviews English-language articles published in the biomedical literature from 1980 to 1997 that reported results of clinical research on complementary and alternative medical treatments (CAM) of interest to patients with breast cancer.

Methods: We searched 12 electronic databases and the bibliographies of the retrieved papers, review articles, and books on CAM and breast cancer. The retrieved articles were grouped by end point: breast cancer (eg, tumor size, survival), disease-related symptoms, side effects of treatment, and immune function. Within each end point, we organized the articles by modality and assessed study design, findings, and qualitative aspects.

Results: Of the more than 1,000 citations retrieved, 51 fit our criteria for review. Of the articles reviewed, 17 were randomized clinical trials; three of these were trials of cancer-directed interventions, two of which involved the same treatment (melatonin). Seven articles described observational studies, and the remainder were reports of phase I or II trials. Relatively few CAM modalities reportedly used by many breast cancer patients were mentioned in articles retrieved by this process. Most articles had shortcomings.

Conclusion: Although many studies had encouraging results, none showed definitively that a CAM treatment altered disease progression in patients with breast cancer. Several modalities seemed to improve other outcomes (eg, acupuncture for nausea, pressure treatments for lymphedema). If CAM studies are well-founded, well-designed, and meticulously conducted, and their hypotheses, methods, and results are reported clearly and candidly, research in this controversial area should acquire credibility both in the scientific community and among advocates of unconventional medicine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Complementary Therapies*
  • Databases, Bibliographic
  • Humans