Research Article

African American Women Use of Alternative Methods in Addition to Traditional Medicine to Treat Breast Cancer

Danita Tolson

Chairperson Baccalaureate Nursing Education & Associate Professor, Coppin State University, Baltimore, USA, Tel: +1 410-951-3000; E-mail:

Corresponding Author: Danita Tolson, Chairperson Baccalaureate Nursing Education & Associate Professor, Coppin State University, Baltimore, USA, Tel: +1 410-951-3000; E-mail:


The number of breast cancers deaths have declined as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Cancer Institute. Perhaps breast cancer patients are seeking alternative methods in addition to traditional medicine with treating breast cancer. For years breast cancer was treated with various traditional methods. Some of the traditional methods used to treat breast cancer includes radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. Although, breast cancer has been treated by radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery for many years, patients are seeking other alternative methods that does not include surgery or medicine. Patients are now exploring alternative methods to medicine to treat breast cancer, such as spirituality, dietary supplements, nutritional practices, herbs, mind over body, energy fields, and exercise. Six African American cancer survivors disclose alternative methods used in addition to the traditional prescribed medicine in this research article. The common theme of the six survivors was support, spirituality, herbs and mind over body method.

Keywords: Alternative Medicine, Traditional Methods, Breast Cancer, Radiation; Chemotherapy; Herbs; Mind over Body; Nutritional Practices; Exercise; Spirituality; First-Degree Relative; African American, Pets, Support


Breast cancer is one of the major concerns with women health. Although, The American Cancer Society reported in 25 years the cancer death rate has dropped 27% in the United States and an estimated 41,760 women are predicted to die in 2019 (American Cancer Society, 2019; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017; U. S. Breast Cancer Statistics, 2019; Breast Cancer Org., 2017) [1-5,12]. Although, the breast cancer death rates are higher than any other cancer for women, the breast cancer death rate has declined (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019; National Cancer Institute, 2017; U. S. Breast Cancer Statistics, 2019; Breast Cancer Org., 2017) [4]. Not only are cancer survivors having early detection, research has improved treatments. In addition, perhaps breast cancer patients are taking more control of their health, being more involved, and seeking alternative methods verses the use of traditional medicine. Past advice from medical providers were not to combine prescribed medicines with unprescribed medicines or alternative methods without seeking approval from their medical provider due to the possible negative reaction or side effects of the combination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 236,968 women in 2014 were diagnosed with breast cancer. In the United States, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer (U. S. Breast Cancer Statistics, 2019) [12]. The American Cancer Society estimated 252,710 women in 2017 had breast cancer and estimates 268,600 women to be diagnosed in 2019 (2017; 2019) [1-2]. In addition, breast cancer doubles if the woman has a first-degree relative (FDR) (U. S. Breast Cancer Statistics, 2019). FDR can be defined as a mother, daughter or sister. Another risk factor is obesity, inactivity, and increased alcohol (Sheng, Sharma, Jerome, Santa-Maria, 2018; Breast Cancer Org.) [10].   In addition, approximately 85% of women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have any family history linking to breast cancer (U. S. Breast Cancer Statistics, 2019) [1-12]. The predictions and the results have possibly fired women to try alternative combination methods verses just using traditional medicine.

The breast cancer death rates have declined as a whole as a result of improved technology, improved treatment, early detection, education and more research; however African American women rates are still elevated (American Cancer Society, 2019, National Cancer Institute, 2017) [1-2]. Although, seeking medical treatment and breast education has improved, some contributing factors still exist, such as still a delay to seek medical treatment and financial burdens. The diagnosis changes the dynamics of the family. Perhaps, the African American woman looked for alternative methods to medicine because they wanted to seek methods to reduce cost to their medical treatment.

The use of alternative medicine dates back to the biblical days. The use of prayer, meditation, praying, (healing) oil, and baptism were some of the methods used in biblical times to the use of plant roots, mixing concoctions, and passing family traditions. The history of the use of alternative medicines assist with the understanding of the transition and increase awareness. Ancient traditions used prayers, hymns, incantations and rituals for healing (Yarbro, Wujcik, & Gobel, 2018) [14]. The 20th century used hemopathy, hydropathy, eclecticism, osteopathy, chiropractic, and naturopathy to name a few (Yarbro, Wujcik, & Gobel, 2018) [14]. After several fatalities the Biologic Control Act and the Food and Drug Act, required companies to provide the ingredients of products for approval prior to providing to the consumers (Yarbro, Wujcik, & Gobel, 2018) [14]. The regulation of herbs was not regulated prior to 1994. Herbs were categorized as a food or drug prior to 1994; however, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act defined herbs as a dietary supplement (Yarbro, Wujcik, Gobel, 2018) [14].  A dietary supplement adds to the total daily intake and must be labeled at dietary supplement (U. S. Food & Drug, 2015; Yarbro, Wujcik, & Gobel, 2018) [11-13,14].

The combination of seeking alternative medicine and traditional medicine were reported to be used by several patients. Nezhad, Behraven and Bardo (2015) [6-7] reports that 83% of breast cancer survivors use alternative medicine and 5.79% failed or avoided to communicate the use of alternative medicine to their doctors. BioMed Central reported that 66.7 women went to Alternative Medicine Therapist (Boon, Olatunde and Zick, 2007) [3]. The combination of the alternative medicine and traditional medicine were reported to have positive results for the cancer patients. Some patients reported an increase in energy, increase positive mental spirit, increase appetite, a feeling of a higher being helping them through the process and feeling positive about their body image.

Many African Americans do not participate in research studies; however African Americans are more willing to share their stories in a narrative then to participate in research procedures requiring human samples or completing lengthy questionnaires (Grove SK, Gray J, Burns N, 2015; Smith A, Vidal GA, Pritchard E, Blue R, Martin R, et al. 2018) [6,11]. African Americans are also willing to participate in research studies or share stories with other African Americans; they feel comfortable with people that look like them.  Six African American women shared their breast cancer stories and how they chose not to take the traditional method but also to include alternative methods that surpassed radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy. 

Woman number one stated she changed her diet, smoked marijuana, and increased her exercise. She stated her friends were supportive; she initially walked with her friend through the mall at least once a week because of her tolerance. She later stated she started to do yoga. She stated she stopped eating certain foods because it made her nauseated and sick. She stated the marijuana was not recommended by her doctor or family, but she stated it helped her with her pain, discomfort and sleep. She also stated it helped with her appetite while undergoing chemotherapy. Woman number one also stated she was spiritual and went to church. She explained the difficulty and challenge she had with coping with diagnosis of cancer, her faith of the church and belief to not use marijuana or continue with pain and weight loss.

Woman number two stated she used a combination of methods to help treat her cancer. She stated she was a cancer survivor for over 8 years. She stated some symptoms she experienced was alopecia, depression, and weight loss. Woman two stated she removed red meat from her diet, ate more fish, decreased the sweets in her diet, and increase teas. Surprisingly, she shared she messaged her scalp while her head was below her knees, doubled her vitamin and biotin intake, and took zinc and vitamin D. She also stated she mixed a concoction of coconut oil and avocados to put on her hair. She explained she lowered her head below her knee to increase the blood flow to her head to increase the hair grow. She also stated she had a great amount of family and church support.

Two women stated they had good support systems from their families, churches and pets.  They also stated they used mediation, prayer, and music. The women expressed they took time to actually do activities they wanted to do but delayed prior to being diagnosed. They stated prioritization was important…. family, friends, and their pets came first. One of the two women stated she only used marijuana occasionally.

Woman number five stated prayer and her church family were supportive. Woman five stated she was depressed. She stated her strength came from her church and the prayers. Woman five disclosed her and her husband separated. She stated she believed she wasn’t going to see the next few years. She stated had financial challenges that she did not disclose. Woman five stated her doctor stated she was in stage 3. She stated she was glad that wigs had gotten better because her hair fell out; she could wear a hair weave. She stated she used black castora to help with her hair lost. She stated she never felt a lump in her breast; her physician examined her. She was diagnosed after receiving a mammogram and biopsy.

Woman number six stated her family was a strong support. She stated she changed her diet and started to eat organic foods, exercised, started acupuncture later in the disease process, and smoked marijuana. She stated her husband felt a lump while they were intimate; her husband made her go to her doctor. She stated she never was in pain or saw any changes in her breast.  She stated she refused for weeks to go to her doctor because she did not want to know. Her doctor diagnosed her with stage I cancer and recommended she attend a breast cancer support group.

This phenomenological article describes the participants experiences related to treating breast cancer. There were several common themes with all six women. All of the women stated they attended a cancer support group or cancer event to increase their knowledge about cancer, for support and to offer support to others, to surround themselves with others who had similar diagnoses, or to be a champion for breast cancer. All six of the women briefly discussed they have financial issues but did not present the specific financial details. Four out of the six women stated they used some form of marijuana. All six of the women stated they had physical and mental support systems and five women discussed spiritual connections. Two out of the six women performed some type of exercise. Three out of six woman changed their diet.

There were several challenges of this phenomenological article. One challenge were once the survivors agreed to participate, there were challenges to coordinating a scheduled time to meet; there were ten women who agreed but only 6 actually were available to discuss their experience in detail. Although information was provided on alternative methods to treating breast cancer, there was no research focused on minorities or African American women survivors using alternative medicine; there were general limited research on the use of alternative medicine for breast cancer and research on alternative medicine use for other disease processes.

Additional research is needed to explore if the use of alternative methods are beneficial or nonbeneficial with the use of alternative methods. Recommendations are to consult with medical providers to get the optimum level of results or health when taking or using alternative methods. Many patients do not communicate with their medical provider to disclose the use of alternative methods, which could possibly have a negative effect (Mazzocut M, Antonni M, Rinaldi F, Omero P, Ferrarin E, et al.; Boon H, Olatunde F, Zick, S, 2007; Nezhad ZP, Behravan H and Bardo OS, 2015) [3,7,8] . Another recommendation is additional minority research, interviews, and discussions are needed on the combination use of tradition medicine and alternative methods.

Many African Americans do not participate in research due to lack of trust (Grove SK, Gray J, Burns N, 2015; A Smith, Vidal GA, Pritchard E, Blue R, Martin M, Rice L, et al. 2018) [6,11]. This phenomenological article was written to give African American women a voice in sharing if they were using additional alternative methods with traditional medicine. Four African American women voluntarily discussed alternative methods to treat breast cancer, in addition to the combination of radiation, chemotherapy, surgery. The women discussed various alternative methods that they felt helped improved their health while battling cancer. Perhaps, the women wanted alternative methods to reduce cost to their financial burdens, wanted to reduce the traditional methods of medicine, and for their person and spiritual beliefs. Out of the discussions with the six women, the most surprising lower rank theme was hair. Hair was discussed but was not the higher ranked topic discussed. Several other women stated they would participate in the interview, if additional time was permitted.

Support Acknowledgements:

Rachel Tolson, Danielle Tolson, Jerry and Vern Tolson, Dr. Danita Potter, Dr. John Wolfe, Dr. B. Lacey


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