Cancer treatment can be complex. It may involve chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or a combination of these treatments. Some non-traditional therapies may be used in tandem with these standard treatments. They are called complementary therapies or sometimes CAM, short for complementary and alternative medicine.
Today, many cancer specialists support the use of complementary therapies to augment standard treatment. They recognize the important role that CAM treatments can play in easing symptoms and improving the lives of people with cancer. As a result, some complementary methods are now taught in medical schools and offered by clinics and hospitals.
What are complementary therapies?
The term complementary therapy is applied to a broad range of practices. They are often divided into categories such as:
- Mind-body therapies, which include yoga, meditation, and hypnosis
- Manual therapies, which include many types of massage and hands-on therapies
- Energy therapies, which include acupuncture, tai chi, and qigong
- Biologically based therapies, which include herbs, vitamins, and supplements
Do they work?
Research suggests that some complementary treatments can reduce symptoms of cancer or cancer treatment. For example, studies in people with cancer have shown that:
- Acupuncture can help relieve cancer-related pain, nausea, and vomiting associated with chemotherapy and dry mouth caused by radiation therapy.
- Yoga can improve mood and quality of life and reduce nausea after chemotherapy.
- Manual therapies such as Swedish massage, reflexology, and acupressure can reduce pain, anxiety, distress, and fatigue.
- Hypnosis can help decrease pain, anxiety, nausea, and vomiting. It may also reduce hot flashes in women after breast cancer treatment.
- Energy therapies such as Reiki, therapeutic touch, and qigong may help reduce stress and improve quality of life.
- Relaxation techniques such as guided imagery can reduce stress, pain, anxiety, and side effects from chemotherapy.
Research continues on these and other treatments to improve the lives of people with cancer.
It's not "either/or"
Some people with cancer are tempted to give up on mainstream medicine and turn to unconventional treatments instead. But there is no evidence that any alternative therapies can halt or slow cancer. Valuable time may be lost if unproven therapies are used in place of proven ones.
Complementary therapies, on the other hand, are used along with standard treatments. They may help you feel better both physically and emotionally as you cope with cancer.
If you are interested in trying a complementary therapy:
- Check with your doctor first to make sure it is safe to use with your prescribed treatments.
- Find a qualified practitioner. Ask your doctor to recommend someone who has experience treating people with cancer.
A word about supplements
Biologically based therapies such as herbs, vitamins, and other supplements are widely used by people with cancer. This may be in part because they are easy to find and relatively cheap. At present, though, there is no evidence to support their use. In some cases, they may actually be dangerous or undermine standard treatments.
Protect your health by being a savvy consumer:
- Be wary of any claims you see or hear about herbs or supplements marketed for cancer.
- Check out any claims on trusted sites such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Cancer Institute, and myOptumHealth.com.
- Never take any herbs, vitamins, or other supplements without talking to your doctor first.
Created on 07/14/2008
Updated on 06/03/2011
- Deng GE, Frenkel M, Cohen L, et al. Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for integrative oncology: complementary therapies and botanicals. Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology. 2009;7(3):85-120.
- University of Minnesota. Taking charge of your health: choosing integrative healthcare.
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Cancer and CAM: what the science says. NCCAM Clinical Digest. October 2010.
- National Cancer Institute. Thinking about complementary and alternative medicine: a guide for people with cancer.