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Can Complementary Medicine Help Treat Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 25, 2021

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you might be curious about complementary therapy. That’s anything that may help symptoms or side effects of treatment. You get it alongside traditional treatments like chemotherapy or radiation. This mixed approach is called integrative health.

Complementary therapy isn’t the same thing as alternative medicine. That’s when you replace traditional treatment with something else, which isn’t recommended. Complementary therapy also can’t cure or treat your cancer. But it might help you feel better, which makes it easier to stick with treatment. Here’s what you need to know.

How to Use Complementary Therapy

Tell your cancer care team about any side effects or symptoms that bother you. They’ll help you come up with a plan that’s safe. But remember, everyone is different. It might take some trial and error to find what works for you.

Common complementary therapies include:

Acupuncture. There’s evidence it can ease nausea or throwing up related to your cancer treatment. It might also ease pain, hot flashes, dry mouth, and other symptoms.

Mind and body practices. These methods teach you how to relax. You might use a mix of focus, breathing, and movement. The goal is to help you manage mental and physical tension. Studies show people with cancer who use these practices sometimes feel less stress, tiredness, depression, and anxiety. You may have less pain and fewer sleep problems, too.

Some examples include:

  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Hypnosis
  • Guided imagery
  • Dance therapy
  • Biofeedback

 

Eating well. It can be hard to eat right when you don’t feel good. But a dietitian can help you come up with a healthy meal plan, which is important during and after your cancer treatment.

Exercise. You may hurt less and have more energy when you exercise. It might also boost your mood and help you sleep better. Ask your doctor to refer you to a physical therapist or trainer who works with people who have cancer. These trained professionals can help you stay safe and active.

Chiropractic care. This practice adjusts how your muscles, joints, skeleton, and spine fit together. Ask your doctor if it’s OK to try, especially if you have osteoporosis, bleeding problems, or you take blood thinners.

Natural products. These might be dietary supplements like vitamins, minerals, spices, or herbs. Ask your doctor before you take anything. Some products, like St. John’s wort, may affect how your cancer drugs work.

Massage. This therapy may ease pain, nausea, anxiety and depression, or sleep problems. Your therapist might need to be mindful of certain spots. Areas around your tumor or treatment site might be sensitive. 

Other therapies your doctor may suggest include:

  • Reiki
  • Reflexology
  • Aromatherapy
  • Music, writing, or art therapy
  • Prayer
  • Labyrinth walking

How to Make It Work for You

You’ll need to be honest with your doctor. Tell them about anything you’re interested in trying or products you’ve already started using.

Here are some questions you might want to ask:

  • What are the pros and cons of this therapy?
  • What symptoms will it treat?
  • Are there side effects?
  • Will it affect my medical treatment?
  • Is it covered by my health insurance?

Your doctor may not know a lot about complementary therapy. It’s OK to ask them to refer you to someone who does. Some cancer clinics have their own integrative health program. You can also visit the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website for more information.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?” “Cancer: In Depth.”

JAMA Oncology: “Complementary Medicine, Refusal of Conventional Cancer Therapy, and Survival Among Patients With Curable Cancers.”

Cancer.Net: “About Complementary and Alternative Therapies,” “Types of Complementary Therapies,” “Exercise During Cancer Treatment.”

National Cancer Institute: “Complementary and Alternative Medicine.”

American Cancer Society: “Can I safely Use and Alternative or Complementary Therapy?”

Mayo Clinic: “Your secret weapon during cancer treatment? Exercise!”

Breastcancer.org: “Chiropractic Therapy.”

Yale Medicine: “Smilow Integrative Medicine Program.”

Federal Trade Commission: “Cancer Treatment Scams.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “Integrative Medicine.”

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