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Complementary Cancer Treatments

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 02, 2020

Complementary, or integrative, medicine for cancer is therapies that doctors don’t generally use as part of your medical treatment. It includes things like:

Some of these approaches may help you manage certain cancer symptoms or side effects of cancer treatment. But there's no proof that any of them can help cure cancer or slow its growth.

Complementary, Not a Replacement

You may hear complementary or integrative treatments called "alternative." But they shouldn’t replace medical treatment for cancer. Nor should you use them to delay treatment.

Often, you need to start medical treatment as soon as possible to slow cancer's growth or shrink tumors.

Talk to Your Doctor First

Many complementary therapies are safe. But some could be harmful or get in the way of your doctor's treatment.

For example, St. John's wort, an herb some people use for depression, makes some cancer drugs less effective.

Even something as simple as massage can cause problems. Massaging areas of your body where you have tumors or radiation treatment could be painful.

Always discuss any supplements and therapies you want to try with your doctor, no matter the reason for them.

Dietary Supplements

You generally shouldn’t take these if you’re getting medical treatment for cancer, unless your doctor OKs them.

There are several reasons for this, including:

  • Supplements can cause serious skin reactions when you get radiation.
  • They may put you at higher risk of drug interactions from chemotherapy.
  • Some could interfere with "targeted treatments" meant to kill cancer cells.

The FDA doesn’t test and approve dietary supplements. So there's no guarantee about their quality, strength, or safety.

Plus there’s no strong scientific evidence that any supplement can treat cancer. For example:

  • Laetrile: It's sometimes called amygdalin or vitamin B17. But it's not really a vitamin. It's an extract made from a substance found in fruit pits, raw nuts, sorghum, and lima beans. Laetrile turns into cyanide in your body. This can be toxic, especially if you take it by mouth. No research has shown that it works against cancer.
  • Shark cartilage extract: Studies show it has no anti-cancer benefit when you use it along with radiation or chemotherapy for lung, breast, or colorectal cancer. It may cause nausea, vomiting, and an upset stomach, among other side effects.

What's Safe?

Some treatments are safe and may help with cancer symptoms or treatment side effects. They include:

  • Acupuncture: In this practice, a trained therapist inserts very thin needles into certain spots on your body. Research shows it might help with nausea and vomiting from cancer treatments. It’s not yet clear whether it can help with pain, hot flashes, and other symptoms.
  • Ginger: This may help with nausea from chemotherapy, especially when you use it along with conventional anti-nausea medicine. Avoid it before surgery because it can thin your blood. And don't take ginger supplements during pregnancy. It's not clear whether that's safe for your baby.
  • Mindfulness: This includes meditation, biofeedback, yoga, tai chi, and other mind-calming techniques. These practices seem to relieve anxiety, stress, and fatigue for some people with cancer. They may improve mood and lessen sleep problems.
  • Aromatherapy: Fragrant oils might calm your mood. They may also help with nausea, pain, and anxiety. You can heat them to release their scent or add them to your bathwater. Take care if you rub them on your skin. They could cause allergic reactions for some people. If you have estrogen-sensitive cancer, like some breast cancers, don't put too much lavender or tea tree oil on your skin. Some early studies found they might have hormone-like effects.
  • Massage therapy: Massage may ease pain and anxiety in some people with cancer. It might also make you feel more alert. Make sure you choose a skilled massage therapist. And check with your doctor about any limits on massage because of your cancer or treatment.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "Complementary and Alternative Medicine."

CDC: "Complementary and Alternative Medicine."

Mayo Clinic: "Alternative cancer treatments: 10 options to consider."

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Integrative Medicine: Ginger," "About Herbs, Botanicals & Other Products."

National Cancer Institute: "Cartilage (Bovine and Shark) (PDQ) -- Patient Version," "Laetrile/Amygdalin (PDQ) -- Patient Version."

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Cancer: In Depth."

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