Can I Safely Use an Alternative or Complementary Therapy?

Many people with cancer use one or more kinds of alternative or complementary therapies. And they often don’t tell their doctors about these decisions. The best approach is to look carefully at your choices. Talk to your doctor about any method you are using or thinking about trying. There are many complementary methods you can safely use along with standard treatment to help relieve symptoms or side effects, to ease pain, and to help you enjoy life more. Even if they aren’t fully tested, you can choose methods that don’t usually cause harm and won’t interfere with your cancer treatment.

Here are examples of some complementary methods that some people have found helpful and safe when used along with standard medical treatment:

  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a technique in which very thin needles are put into the body to treat a number of symptoms. It may help with mild pain and some types of nausea.
  • Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy is the use of fragrant substances, called essential oils, distilled from plants to alter mood or improve symptoms such as stress or nausea.
  • Art therapy: Art therapy is used to help people with physical and emotional problems by using creative activities to express emotions.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a treatment method that uses monitoring devices to help people gain conscious control over physical processes that are usually controlled automatically, such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, sweating, and muscle tension.
  • Labyrinth walking: Involves a meditative walk along a set circular pathway that goes to the center and comes back out. Labyrinths can also be “walked” online or on a grooved board following the curved path with a finger.
  • Massage therapy: Massage involves manipulation, rubbing, and kneading of the body’s muscle and soft tissue. Some studies suggest massage can decrease stress, anxiety, depression, and pain and increase alertness.
  • Meditation: Meditation is a mind-body process in which a person uses concentration or reflection to relax the body and calm the mind.
  • Music therapy: Music therapy is offered by trained healthcare professionals who use music to promote healing and enhance quality of life.
  • Prayer and spirituality: Spirituality is generally described as an awareness of something greater than the individual self. It’s often expressed through religion and/or prayer, but there are many other paths of spiritual pursuit and expression.
  • Tai chi: Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art. It’s a mind-body system that uses movement, meditation, and breathing to improve health and well being. It’s been shown to improve strength and balance in some people.
  • Yoga: Yoga is a form of non-aerobic exercise that involves a program of precise posture and breathing activities.

The American Cancer Society recommends discussing all types of complementary or alternative treatments with your cancer treatment doctor (oncologist) and health care team.

Questions to ask about alternative and complementary therapies

If you are thinking about using any method instead of evidence-based medical treatment, you may want to think about these questions:

  • What claims are made about the treatment? That it can relieve symptoms or side effects? That it can improve health? Be very suspicious of any treatment that says it can cure cancer. Claims that a treatment can cure all cancers or that it can cure cancer and other difficult-to-treat diseases (including chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, etc.) are sure to be false.
  • What are the qualifications of those supporting the treatment? Are they medical doctors? Are they recognized experts in cancer care? In complementary medicines? If you’re seeing a complementary or alternative practitioner, find out about their training and education.
  • Have scientific studies or clinical trials (in humans) been done to find out whether this treatment works? What side effects have been reported?
  • Have the findings been published in trustworthy journals after being reviewed by other scientists who are experts in the same field?
  • How is information about the method given? Is it promoted only in the mass media, such as books, magazines, the Internet, TV, infomercials, and radio talk shows rather than in scientific or medical journals?
  • Is the method widely available for use within the health-care community? Once a treatment is found safe and useful, it’s usually widely adopted by other professionals. Beware of treatments you can only get in one clinic, especially if that clinic is in a country with more lax patient protection laws than those in the United States or the European Union.
  • What’s known about the safety of the treatment? Could it be harmful or interact badly with your other medicines or supplements?

Avoiding fraud and questionable treatments

Use the checklist below to spot treatments that might be questionable. Keep in mind that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. If you’re not sure, talk to your doctor or nurse before moving ahead.

  • Does the treatment promise a cure for all cancers?
  • Are you told not to use recommended or standard (mainstream) medical treatment?
  • Does the treatment claim to offer benefits, but no side effects? Even herbs and vitamins have side effects. If the treatment is marketed as having no side effects, it has not likely been studied in rigorous clinical trials, where side effects would be seen.
  • Is the treatment or drug only offered by one person or clinic?
  • Does the treatment require you to travel to another country?
  • Do the promoters use terms like “scientific breakthrough,” “miracle cure,” “secret ingredient,” or “ancient remedy”?
  • Are you offered personal stories of amazing results, but no actual scientific evidence?
  • Do the promoters attack the medical or scientific community?

Again, there are some safe complementary therapies out there that can help you feel better. But there are other treatments that can hurt you. Before investing your money and time in any non-traditional medicine, please talk to your doctor about whether or not it may help you in your fight against cancer.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: March 31, 2015

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