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Cancer Health Center

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Complementary Medicine and Cancer

Is the complementary approach a new model for Western medicine?
WebMD Feature

A few years ago, if you asked your oncologist for a referral to a masseuse, she'd think you were joking. But things have changed. Nowadays, your oncologist might be prescribing the massage -- along with acupuncture, herbs and other therapies.

It's a sign of a new trend: Integrative medicine is making its way into the mainstream, combining standard medical treatments with complementary ones. Some hospitals have even set up entire integrative medicine centers -- largely because of patient demand.

"Patients love it," says Simone Zappa, RN, an administrator in the Integrative Medicine Department at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "And they love it because it works."

Complementary treatments help many people with cancer. Massage, acupuncture, and hypnosis are being used along with radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. These complementary therapies aren't usually intended to treat the cancer itself. But they can ease side effects and improve quality of life. They may even reduce the amount of medicine you need for treatment.

What's more, some of these treatments have been shown to work in scientific studies. The gulf between evidence-based Western medicine and traditional therapies is not as wide as it once was. And many people with cancer are benefiting.

Understanding Complementary Medicine

Complementary medicine includes dozens of treatments that have not been generally used in Western medicine. They extend from nutritional changes, to biofeedback, to yoga.

Experts stress that complementary or integrative medicine is not the same as "alternative medicine." Complementary medicine for cancer is a complement -- not a replacement -- for traditional treatments like radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. It's an important distinction, since only conventional therapies have been shown to fight cancer.

People with cancer seek out complementary medicine for many reasons. Zappa says that, at Sloan-Kettering, she most often sees people suffering from pain, nausea, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Some are wary of the unusual approach at first. But most are convinced after they try it, says Zappa. "What's great about the integrative approach is that it gives back a feeling of control."

Complementary Medicine's New Converts

For hardened skeptics, phrases like "traditional healing techniques" and "alternative medicine" conjure up images of magic crystals and the smell of incense. But in fact, the people researching complementary medicine -- and sometimes even practicing it -- are likely to be wearing lab coats.

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