Which Complementary Methods Are Likely Safe?

There are a number of complementary methods that can be safely used along with standard cancer treatment. These methods may help relieve symptoms or side effects, ease pain, and help you enjoy life more. While they aren’t fully tested, many are not usually harmful and can be used along with your treatment.

Here are examples of complementary methods that some people have found helpful and safe when used along with standard medical treatment. Be sure to talk with your cancer care team before trying any of these.

  • Acupressure: Putting pressure on or rubbing specific parts of the body to help control symptoms.
  • Acupuncture: A technique in which very thin needles are put into the body to help treat a number of symptoms, such as mild pain and some types of nausea.
  • Aromatherapy: The use of fragrant substances, called essential oils, distilled from plants to alter mood or improve symptoms such as stress or nausea. These oils can be inhaled or diluted and rubbed on the skin. 
  • Art therapy: Using creative activities to help people express emotions.
  • Biofeedback: A technique 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 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: Involves manipulation, rubbing, and kneading of the body’s muscles and other soft tissues. May help decrease stress, anxiety, depression, and pain, and increase alertness.
  • Meditation: A mind-body process in which a person uses concentration or reflection to relax the body and calm the mind.
  • Music therapy: The use of music to promote healing and enhance quality of life.
  • Spirituality and prayer: Generally described as an awareness of something greater than the individual self. Often expressed through religion and/or prayer, but there are many other paths of spiritual pursuit and expression.
  • Tai chi: A mind-body system that uses movement, meditation, and breathing to improve health and well being. It’s been shown to help improve strength and balance in some people.
  • Yoga: A form of non-aerobic exercise that involves a program of precise posture and breathing activities.

Some other types of complementary methods, such as dietary supplements, have generally not been proven to help prevent or treat cancer or its symptoms, and might sometimes even cause harm. The American Cancer Society recommends discussing any type of complementary treatment you are considering with your cancer treatment team before you try it.

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.

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Integrative Medicine. 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.  

Calcagni N, Gana K, Quintard B. (2019). A systematic review of complementary and alternative medicine in oncology: Psychological and physical effects of manipulative and body-based practices. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0223564.  

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. 

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 at 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. 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.  

Calcagni N, Gana K, Quintard B. (2019). A systematic review of complementary and alternative medicine in oncology: Psychological and physical effects of manipulative and body-based practices. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0223564.  

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. 

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 at 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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