Can Complementary Medicine Help Treat Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Lisa Bernstein, MD on July 25, 2016
4 min read

One day, a one-time Marine and former police officer with bladder cancer limped into the office of Kay Garcia, DrPH. His pain was off the charts. His legs were so sore and swollen that he couldn’t wear shoes. This strong man was desperate for help.

So Garcia, a licensed acupuncturist, quickly put him on a 10-session plan. At first, it didn’t look promising. More than halfway through his treatments, nothing had changed. He was still in agony.

When Garcia saw him again 2 days later for his seventh acupuncture session, the difference was clear. He was smiling ear-to-ear. He was wearing shoes. His pain, on a scale of 0-10, was a zero. Gone.

A miracle cure? Score one for the mysteries of acupuncture?

Not so fast.

Turns out, the acupuncture made him feel better. Good enough to get back on a treadmill. The exercise helped reduce the swelling in his legs. With less swelling, the pain eased up.

Over time, he was able to stop taking his pain meds. He kept working out. A year later, he was still pain-free.

It is, Garcia says, the perfect example of how integrative medicine should work. “The acupuncture alone clearly would not have been enough. But when he added it, in a thoughtful, integrated way to the exercise, literally, within 48 hours, that man’s life completely changed,” she says.

He even booked a cruise for himself and his wife, she adds.

“That’s the correct way to think about it to me,” she says. “It’s not a magic bullet. It does not work on everyone. But when it is added to a treatment plan in a carefully thought-out, integrated way, it can make a huge difference in terms of quality of life and pain management.”

Acupuncture is one of the many treatments that used to fall under the umbrella term complementary medicine, or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). These options are now known by many as integrative medicine.

“The word 'integrative' is used to really say that we’re combining. Whatever makes sense for that particular patient," says Dawn Lemanne, MD, founder of Oregon Integrative Oncology in Ashland, OR.

“If it comes from the quote-unquote complementary or alternative world, fine,” she says. “If it comes from the conventional world, fantastic. If it’s working, that’s what we’re really going for.”

Integrative medicine uses it all. It’s based in conventional medicine and aims to use other treatments if they help. For people with cancer, that means a mix of traditional treatments like radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy with practices that wouldn’t have been considered by traditional doctors even a few years ago:

  • Acupuncture
  • Yoga
  • Meditation, relaxation, and stress relief
  • Massage
  • Chiropractic care
  • Exercise
  • Herbs
  • Dietary supplements
  • Vitamins
  • Proper nutrition

These days it’s an accepted field of study and practice. The National Institutes of Health has a branch called the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), and the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine & Health boasts more than 60 major academic medical centers and other organizations.

The public has caught on to the idea of these other therapies. Almost 60 million Americans spend more than $30 billion on out-of-pocket complementary medicines each year.

Treating cancer isn’t easy. It’s not a one-size-fits-all disease. It’s also a bit of a moving target.

“Every single cancer is very different, and every person who has a particular cancer is different, and a cancer is different in the same person over a period of time,” Lemanne says.  In other words, your cancer changes over time and responds to different things as treatment goes on.
That means those battling it are constantly looking for new methods and new medicines. In one study, 65% of the people with cancer used some sort of complementary medicine.

Still, looking for something that helps and finding it are two different challenges.

Joanne Buzaglo, PhD, is the senior vice president of Research and Training at the Cancer Support Community in Washington, DC. She spends much of her time listening to what people with cancer want from the medical community. Mostly, she says, it’s about lifestyle choices.

“I can tell you where I really feel there’s some real gaps: eating and nutrition,” Buzaglo says. People really want some help around that. Another area where there isn’t enough support is cancer rehab and physical therapy and exercise.

“There’s a big emphasis on exercising, yet there’s very little support for it,” she says.

The first step is to ask your doctor about nonconventional therapies. If you’re already taking something they don’t know about -- vitamins, some herbs, even if you’re just drinking green tea -- get it all out on the table.

Some doctors might resist. If you think it’ll help, get a second opinion. Ask your doctor these questions:

  • What do we know about the benefits and risks of a product or therapy?
  • Does the good outweigh the bad?
  • What might the side effects be?
  • How will this work with conventional treatment?
  • Will my insurance cover this?

“I think there’s a greater understanding, at least among the younger doctors who are familiar with the newer research on things like lifestyle and diet and exercise,” Lemanne says.

Support for the integrative approach is on the rise, says David Rosenthal, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Public acceptance is very good, especially with mind-body [meditation, yoga, etc.] medicine,” he says. “Most realize that mind-body medicine is evidence-based.”

Research continues into all sorts of complementary therapies to try to establish scientific evidence that would make these options more widely accepted. Even beyond the science, though, some doctors are willing to accept a treatment that might not be scientifically proven.

“If a patient taking chemotherapy says he or she feels less fatigued after a regular schedule of doing tai chi, does it really matter whether this is because of chi pathways or exercise?” says Ted Gansler, strategic director of pathology research for the American Cancer Society.