How to Mitigate Cancer Treatment Side Effects


“You have breast cancer.” For most people, those four simple words can cause a rush of complex emotions—from shock and panic to fear and anger and everything in between. Integrative health practitioners are in a unique position to provide support to breast cancer patients during this turbulent time. While your first and most important step will be the oncologist for a robust cancer treatment plan, you may also choose to see an integrative health practitioner to help you manage the side effects of care treatment. Diet and lifestyle advice, as well as dietary supplement recommendations, can make an important impact that can help patients manage treatment effects and support quality of life during treatment.

pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness on a white table

Integrative health practitioners are in a unique position to provide support to breast cancer patients during this turbulent time.

Numerous Negative Effects

Without question, many lives are saved because of breast cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted therapies. But it is also widely known that these treatments come with side effects and some of those effects can negatively impact the patient’s health and quality of life. A 2017 paper published in the journal Cancer found that 93% of the women surveyed had at least one of these seven side effects of cancer treatment:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Pain
  • Arm swelling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin irritation

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, fatigue, headaches, and pain (e.g. peripheral neuropathy) top a long list of possible long-term and late effects of breast cancer treatment. Long-term effects can occur during treatment and late effects can show up weeks, months or even years after treatment ends. Luckily there are some things you can do to make yourself more comfortable while you undergo these treatments.

Supplements to Support Fatigue, Nausea, GI, and Nerves

Cancer-related fatigue is a key concern because it is estimated that 80% of all cancer patients treated with chemotherapy experience fatigue and up to 90% of those treated with radiation experience this special type of extreme fatigue. There are several studies demonstrating that ginseng can help ameliorate cancer-related fatigue. Specific to patients with breast cancer, a 2006 study showed that ginseng helped reduce fatigue but also supported overall survival and quality of life.

ginger and ginger powder in tin can spread on table

Ginger is an integrative approach that can help reduce nausea and vomiting during cancer treatment.

According to the National Cancer Institute, most patients who receive chemotherapy can experience nausea and vomiting as a result of the treatment. Vomiting not only significantly impacts the quality of life, but it can also be dangerous if the patient becomes dehydrated. Ginger is an integrative approach that can help reduce nausea and vomiting during cancer treatment. A 2016 randomized, double-blind clinical trial featuring 65 women going through breast cancer chemotherapy showed a significant difference between the women receiving ginger compared to those in the control group. In that study, ginger was combined with chamomile for an added calming effect. Interestingly, a 2017 double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial not only showed that ginger significantly improved chemotherapy-induced nausea and quality of life compared to placebo, the patients in the ginger supplemented group also had less cancer-related fatigue.

mason jar of milk on table next to bed

Many studies in several different patient populations have shown that probiotics can help support individuals with both diarrhea and constipation, two common effects of breast cancer treatment.

Integrative practitioners are familiar with the gastrointestinal (GI) benefits of probiotics. It makes sense that this supplemental intervention can also be effective for patients going through breast cancer treatment. A 2017 meta-analysis of six trials concluded that probiotics may help prevent radiation-induced diarrhea. While that analysis specifically looked at abdominal and pelvic cancers, other research is making a clear connection between probiotics and the breast microbiome. For example, preliminary research demonstrates that probiotics may even help support a reduced risk of breast cancer. Many studies in several different patient populations have shown that probiotics can help support individuals with both diarrhea and constipation, two common effects of breast cancer treatment.

ripe red tomatoes in a blue bowl on a table

Tomatoes contain alpha-lipoic acid in very low amounts.

Peripheral nerves need extra support because they can be damaged during chemotherapy, especially with platinum-based agents. As a result, patients can experience numbness, weakness, and pain. Studies using acetyl L-carnitine, L-carnitine, and lipoic acid to help support peripheral nerves have been positive in patients with diabetes but mixed in patients with cancer.

salmon and salad on a plate with a fork

Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids.

One novel way to support nerve health while undergoing chemotherapy is by supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids. A 2012 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial involving breast cancer patients and paclitaxel chemotherapy found that the group taking omega-3 fatty acids had healthy peripheral nerves, whereas nearly 41% in the placebo group experienced nerve dysfunction. A 2016 study involving colon cancer patients who had been treated with oxaliplatin also showed that the group taking omega-3 fatty acids had significantly less nerve dysfunction compared to the control group.

Patient Story

Patients like Jennifer remind us of the amazing impact that integrative medicine can have while undergoing breast cancer treatment.⁣ Taking a preventive approach, even when she was rediagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, Jennifer took supplements to strengthen herself to help mitigate potential health risks. Her testimonial offers an insight into how integrative healthcare supports her.

Final Thoughts

Given the magnitude of cancer, it’s highly likely that most integrative practitioners, regardless of their area of expertise, are seeing patients in their practice who have had a diagnosis. Supporting these patients both during their cancer treatment and as they recover is a key clinical goal. In addition to counseling these patients about a healthy diet and lifestyle, targeted dietary supplements can provide adjuvant support for many of the treatment effects they may experience.

Alschuler LA, Gazella KA. Natural interventions for posttreatment cancer-related fatigue. Natural Medicine Journal. 2014;6(11).

Barton DL, Liu H, Dakhil SR, et al. Wisconsin ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) to improve cancer-related fatigue: a randomized, double blind trial N07C2. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2013;105(6):1230-1238.

Friese CR, Harrison JM, Janz NK, et al. Treatment-associated toxicities reported by patients with early-stage invasive breast cancer. Cancer. 2017;123(11):1925-1934.

Ghoreishi Z, Esfahani A, Djazayeri A, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids are protective against paclitaxel-induced peripherapl neuropathy: a randomized, double-blind placebo controlled trial. BMC Cancer. 2012;12:355.

Liu MM, Li ST, Shu Y, Zhan HQ. Probiotics for the prevention of radiation-induced diarrhea: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(6).

Marx W, McCarthy AL, Ried K, et al. The effect of a standaridized ginger extract on chemotherapy-induced nausea-related quality of life in patients undergoing moderately or high emetogenic chemotherapy: a double blind, randomized, placebo controlled trial. Nutrients. 2017;9(8):867.

Sanaati F, Najafi S, Kashaninia Z, Sadeghi M. Effect of ginger and chamomile on nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy in women with breast cancer. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. 2016;17(8):4125-9.

Yennurajalingam S, Reddy A, Tannir NM. High-dose Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) for cancer-related fatigue. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2015;14(5):419-427.