What Are Complementary and Integrative Methods?

Complementary and integrative are terms used to describe many kinds of products and practices that are not part of standard medical care but may be used by people with cancer to better manage cancer-related symptoms and side effects.

  • Complementary methods refers to supportive methods used along with standard medical treatment. They are not cancer treatments themselves but may be used to help relieve symptoms of cancer and side effects of treatment. The use of complementary treatments may improve wellbeing and quality of life. Some examples of complementary therapies are meditation, nutrition, physical activity, acupuncture, yoga, guided imagery, reflexology, and massage.
  • Standard treatments are based on research studies that show that the treatment is safe and effective in one or more types of cancer. Examples of standard cancer treatments are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and hormonal therapy. There are also standard treatments that can help with many of the side effects of cancer and its treatment, such as medicines to help with pain or nausea.
  • Integrative medicine refers to the combined use of standard medical treatments and certain complementary methods, most often to relieve the symptoms of cancer and side effects of treatment.

Complementary methods are different from alternative treatments. While complementary methods are meant to be used with and support standard treatments, alternative methods are used instead of standard treatments.  

Treatments that are not used in mainstream medicine -- including complementary and alternative therapies -- may be described as unconventional, non-conventional, or non-traditional by mainstream medical doctors. Some treatments, such as traditional Chinese medicine or Native American healing, might also be considered complementary or alternative therapies. Of course, to the person who is part of the culture practicing these treatments, their native methods are usually called traditional, while Western medicine is the non-traditional way.

Why do people with cancer use complementary methods?

People with cancer might think about using complementary methods for a number of reasons:

  • They want to do everything they can to fight the cancer.
  • They’d like to relieve the side effects of mainstream cancer treatment without having to take more medicine.
  • They are seeking a treatment approach that might have fewer side effects.
  • They have a friend or family member who suggested a complementary method.

Complementary methods may be appealing because they use your own body, your own mind, or things found in nature. And most complementary methods rarely cause harm.

Using a complementary method is your decision

It's important to learn as much as possible about a treatment before you use it. But be aware that the information available about many complementary methods often includes less high-quality research than what is available about mainstream treatments. This is one of the reasons that it is sometimes impossible to say much about whether a complementary method is likely to help you, or how safe it might be. Even if only limited information is available, understanding the limits of what is known can help you make your decision.

The choice to use complementary or integrative methods is yours. You can use them more safely if you:

  • Learn about the risks and benefits of each therapy from reliable scientific sources.
  • Talk with your doctor about your plans to use any self-prescribe remedy instead of medicine they presribed. Ask about risks and benefits and find out about possible interactions with standard treatments.
  • Ask your doctor or cancer care team to refer you to someone who is reliable and trusted if you need a practitioner for a complementary treatment (such as for massage therapy).
  • Keep in mind that most complementary methods have not been tested for safety in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, so the possible effects on a fetus or nursing child are mostly unknown.
  • Talk with your child’s doctor before giving supplements or other remedies to your child.

You can find more information about specific types of complementary and integrative methods on the National Cancer Institute website, www.cancer.gov.

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.

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on April 20, 2021.
 
Buckner CA, Lafrenie RM, Dénommée JA, Caswell JM, Want DA. Complementary and alternative medicine use in patients before and after a cancer diagnosis. Curr Oncol. 2018 Aug;25(4):e275-e281. doi:
10.3747/co.25.3884. Epub 2018 Aug 14. PMID: 30111972; PMCID: PMC6092049.
 
Deng G, Cassileth B. Integrative oncology: an overview. Am Soc Clin Oncol Educ Book. 2014:233-42. doi: 10.14694/EdBook_AM.2014.34.233. PMID: 24857081.
 
Greenlee H, DuPont-Reyes MJ, Balneaves LG, et al. Clinical practice guidelines on the evidence-based use of integrative therapies during and after breast cancer treatment. CA Cancer J Clin. 2017 May 6; 67(3):194-232.
 
National Cancer Institute. Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Last updated November 24, 2020. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam on April 6, 2021.
 
National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Health Information for Patients. Accessed from https://cam.cancer.gov/health_information/for_patients.htm on August 18, 2021.
 
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Are You Considering a Complementary Health Approach? Last updated September 2016. Accessed at https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/are-you-considering-a-complementary-health-approach on April 9, 2021.
 
Wilkinson JM, Stevens MJ. Use of complementary and alternative medical therapies (CAM) by patients attending a regional comprehensive cancer care centre. J Complement Integr Med. 2014 Jun;11(2):139-145. 
 
Wong CH, Sundberg T, Chung VC, Voiss P, Cramer H. Complementary medicine use in US adults with a history of colorectal cancer: a nationally representative survey. Support Care Cancer.
2021 an;29(1):271-278. doi: 10.1007/s00520-020-05494-x. Epub 2020 May 1. 
References
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Integrative Medicine. Cancer.net. Last updated June 2019. Accessed from https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/integrative-medicine
on April 20, 2021.
 
Buckner CA, Lafrenie RM, Dénommée JA, Caswell JM, Want DA. Complementary and alternative medicine use in patients before and after a cancer diagnosis. Curr Oncol. 2018 Aug;25(4):e275-e281. doi:
10.3747/co.25.3884. Epub 2018 Aug 14. PMID: 30111972; PMCID: PMC6092049.
 
Deng G, Cassileth B. Integrative oncology: an overview. Am Soc Clin Oncol Educ Book. 2014:233-42. doi: 10.14694/EdBook_AM.2014.34.233. PMID: 24857081.
 
Greenlee H, DuPont-Reyes MJ, Balneaves LG, et al. Clinical practice guidelines on the evidence-based use of integrative therapies during and after breast cancer treatment. CA Cancer J Clin. 2017 May 6; 67(3):194-232.
 
National Cancer Institute. Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Last updated November 24, 2020. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam on April 6, 2021.
 
National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Health Information for Patients. Accessed from https://cam.cancer.gov/health_information/for_patients.htm on August 18, 2021.
 
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Are You Considering a Complementary Health Approach? Last updated September 2016. Accessed at https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/are-you-considering-a-complementary-health-approach on April 9, 2021.
 
Wilkinson JM, Stevens MJ. Use of complementary and alternative medical therapies (CAM) by patients attending a regional comprehensive cancer care centre. J Complement Integr Med. 2014 Jun;11(2):139-145. 
 
Wong CH, Sundberg T, Chung VC, Voiss P, Cramer H. Complementary medicine use in US adults with a history of colorectal cancer: a nationally representative survey. Support Care Cancer.
2021 an;29(1):271-278. doi: 10.1007/s00520-020-05494-x. Epub 2020 May 1. 

Last Revised: August 25, 2021

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