When you have breast cancer, your treatments, such as radiation, surgery and chemotherapy, are physically hard on you. Receiving a cancer diagnosis and managing it is also emotionally stressful. This stress puts even more tension on your body. Odd as it may sound, breast cancer and chiropractic care can go together.
While a chiropractor can’t treat cancer, the Canadian Cancer Society advises that chiropractic care may help people living with it cope with some types of pain and discomfort.”¹ That’s because research shows chiropractors can treat some of the side effects, such as back, shoulder and neck pain that often come with breast cancer therapy.
A chiropractor is a patient-centred, non-invasive, hands-on, regulated health care professional focused on your spine, muscles, joints and nervous system. They can provide additional care to help you manage some of your breast or other cancer treatment’s side effects, including:
- Muscle, back, shoulder, neck and joint pain
- Pain associated with nerve damage or dysfunction (neuropathy)
- Spine, muscle or joint-related headaches
It Takes a Team to Manage Breast Cancer
As breast cancer treatment options and survival rates have improved over time, medical and allied health professionals have begun to recognize the need to treat your whole body.
A chiropractor can’t prevent, treat or cure your cancer. However, they will work with your family doctor, cancer doctor (oncologist) and other health care professionals in your circle of care to support your overall treatment and help address its side effects.
With an illness as complex as breast cancer, it takes a team of health care professionals to manage it.
Why Does My Shoulder, Back or Neck Ache?
When you go through surgery and chemotherapy, you likely expect some nausea. With radiation therapy, you prepare for a burning sensation. What surprises many patients is the impact these treatments can have on their spine, muscles, joints and nervous system. Each treatment, no matter how necessary, comes with its own challenges and side effects.
For example, with:
- Radiation, you have to lie still with your arm in a very specific position for the duration of your treatment. As treatment progresses, you repeat this step multiple times and it can put pressure on your shoulder’s surrounding tissue.
- Surgery, you’re placed in an awkward position with your neck extended to accommodate a breathing tube, which can create strain on your neck.
- Chemotherapy, you have to sit for prolonged periods of time, which can take its toll on your lower back.
Your chiropractor can treat and help relieve the resulting shoulder, neck and back pain, as well as related headaches.
They can also give you some therapeutic exercises to help you regain your range of motion after a mastectomy or lumpectomy surgery. And your chiropractor may collaborate with your physiotherapist to help resolve a lingering spine or joint issue.
When Should I Seek Chiropractic Care?
Some people delay other care when they’re going through cancer treatment but you don’t need to put up with the pain. A chiropractor will assess and develop a care plan tailored to your specific cancer treatments, where you are in the process, the medications you’re on and your level of comfort.
The longer you wait, the longer it may take to alleviate your shoulder, neck or back pain. This is because it’s had time to settle in.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, some patients have put their complementary care on hold to reduce their risk of infection. However, chiropractors follow strict protocols laid out in government directives and their regulatory college’s guidelines to ensure your safety while visiting a chiropractor.
A Chiropractic Care Plan for Your Needs
Based on the best available evidence, combined with their clinical expertise, your chiropractor will recommend a care plan to relieve your pain and help prevent it from returning. They will also discuss the benefits and risks of each treatment and work with you to develop a plan that meets your preferences.
For example, chiropractic care treatments frequently include hands-on manual therapy and ‘adjustments’ or manual manipulation of the vertebrae of your spine. But bone density can be an issue with some cancers and their treatment, including medications. If this describes your situation, your chiropractor will be cautious with any hands-on therapy and may not recommend adjustments at all.
There are other treatments a chiropractor may recommend for a cancer patient or survivor, such as:
- Soft tissue therapy to help alleviate pain and tension caused by stress and other fallout from cancer treatment
- More gentle mobilizations, rather than adjustments
- A customized, therapeutic exercise program, with stretching and mobility exercises, for your lifestyle and comfort level
- Self-management tools and techniques (like positions for relief or coping strategies) to help you take control of the pain and focus on your recovery
- Nutritional, dietary and lifestyle counselling
Some chiropractors also encourage their patients to include breathing exercises in their at-home exercises. This makes the exercise multi-purpose and offers an additional way for you to de-stress and practice self-care.
According to The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, “cancer patients often respond well to chiropractic care, achieving outcomes that are unattainable by medication or other therapies.”² In particular, breast cancer and chiropractic care can go together.
However, chiropractic care is not recommended for some cancers, such as bone cancer.
Added Benefit of Regularly Visiting a Chiropractor
When you regularly visit a chiropractor, you develop a rapport with each other. Your chiropractor becomes familiar with your lifestyle and how your body is impacted.
They can also act as a clinical detective.
Based on ongoing conversations, your chiropractor may see or hear early warning signs of something more medically significant outside their expertise. If their concern is not related to your spine, muscles or joints, they’ll refer you to the appropriate health care professional for further examination and diagnosis.
A chiropractor may also be the first to detect if cancer has spread to another area of your body like your bones. If this happens, they can give you a timely referral to the appropriate health care professional.
Breast Cancer and Chiropractic Care to Help You Manage
You don’t have to go through cancer alone. You can turn to the expertise of your care team, which will include your family doctor, oncologist, as well as likely other health care professionals, such as a nutritionist and a chiropractor to help you manage.
Before seeking chiropractic care during or following cancer treatment, ask your oncologist if it’s right for you. And always tell your chiropractor upfront about your cancer treatment and any medications you’re taking or if they change. With this information in mind, they can effectively assess and develop the right plan for your specific needs.
To find a chiropractor near you, use the chiropractor locator on our website. In Ontario, you can visit a chiropractor without a referral from a doctor, nurse practitioner or other health care professional.