Some complementary therapies, especially natural health products such as herbs and supplements, have their own side effects and can interfere with standard cancer treatments.It is important to discuss complementary therapies with your healthcare providers.This will allow your doctors to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that incorporates complementary therapies that are safe and effective.

What types of Complementary Therapies are Available?

Complementary therapies can be grouped into five major categories:

  1. Ancient/Traditional Medical Systems

Ancient and traditional medical systems include traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy and naturopathy. Some are ancient practices commonly used in other countries such as China and India. Others, such as homeopathy and naturopathy, have been part of Western culture for centuries. Examples of techniques used in alternative medical systems include acupuncture, herbal medicine and restorative physical exercise.

  • Chinese medicine - a practice that emphasizes the balance of qi (pronounced "chee") or vital energy. Within this system, illness is defined as a disturbance in the balance of vital energy
  • Ayurvedic medicine - a system of healing that evolved from teachings of ancient India. It stresses the use of body, mind and spirit in disease prevention and treatment and strives to achieve harmony within the individual
  • Homeopathy - an alternative health system that uses remedies containing a diluted version of the substance producing the illness or symptoms
  • Naturopathy - an alternative health system that uses the body's own healing power through lifestyle changes, natural remedies such as plant-based drugs and herbs, homeopathy and Chinese medicine such as acupuncture
  1. Mind-Body Interventions

Mind-body interventions use strategies to enhance your mind's impact on your body's function and physical symptoms. They aim to help you relax, reduce stress and relieve symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatments. Practices considered mind-body interventions include meditation, hypnosis, yoga, tai chi and music therapy.

  1. Biologically Based Treatments

Natural products include vitamins, herbs (botanicals), foods, dietary supplements, probiotics and other products that contain substances found in nature. But just because a product is “natural” doesn't mean it is safe. Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't consider complementary and alternative therapies such as vitamins or herbal medicines to be drugs (they label them as foods), these products don't need to undergo FDA testing and approval before they're sold to consumers. This means that their effectiveness and safety is often unknown. Few herbal products have been tested for side effects or quality. However, the FDA can remove a product from the market if they deem the product harmful.

  1. Manipulative and Body-Based Practices

Manipulative and body-based practices are based on the manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body. These therapies may be used to treat pain, stress and anxiety and to improve general well-being. Examples include chiropractic treatments, therapeutic massage, and reflexology.

  1. Energy Therapies

Energy therapies focus either on energy levels originating within your body (biofields) or from outside sources (electromagnetic fields). Some energy healing therapies, such as Reiki and healing touch, involve having a practitioner "channel" his or her healing energy into your body to promote a normal energy balance and health. Electromagnetic field types include magnet therapy and light therapy.

Complementary Therapies for Cancer Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects

An integrative healthcare team evaluates the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of each patient to then recommended specific therapies and lifestyle changes as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. Complementary therapies do not work for everyone. Benefits may vary from person to person. The following is a partial list of complementary therapies:

  • Acupuncture-the most common acupuncture technique employs needles penetrating key points of the skin. It's used to reduce nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy and to relieve some forms of pain. It's also considered to be a manipulative and body-based practice, an energy therapy and a whole medical system
  • Aromatherapy-the use of essential oils from plants. The oils are usually massaged into the body or added with water to a diffuser and inhaled. Aromatherapy may improve mood and emotions by sending chemical messages to the brain. For cancer patients, aromatherapy may help with stress, anxiety and fatigue.
  • Exercise-physical exercise (walking, swimming, strength training) may improve a cancer patient’s fatigue, mood, and sleep. Before starting an exercise program consult with your healthcare team. A physical therapist can help create an exercise plan that considers the patient’s age, type of cancer and physical fitness level.
  • Hypnosis - a trance like state in which the body is relaxed but the mind active. A specially trained therapist can direct the patient’s attention to specific thoughts, feelings, images, sensation or behaviors. Hypnosis may help with pain, anxiety, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Massage - the manipulation of tissue and joints to enhance their function and circulation, to relive pain, and to promote relaxation. Talk with your doctor before undergoing any type of massage. For example, a massage therapist should not use deep pressure near enlarged lymph nodes or on skin that is sensitive following radiation therapy.
  • Meditation-a mind-body practice that focuses the mind and increases awareness. Meditation can promote a sense of calm and relaxation, improve psychological balance, and enhance overall health and well-being.
    • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) -the most studied form on medication in cancer patients. MBSR combines meditation, yoga, and group dynamics to help relieve anxiety, stress, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.
  • Music therapy-uses music to help improve a person’s health and well-being. It may include listening to relaxing music, singing, composing music, or moving to music. Music therapy may reduce stress, pain, anxiety, and nausea.
  • Relaxation techniques-promote health by relaxing the body and quieting the mind. There therapies are used to relive stress and muscle tension, lower blood pressure, reduce pain, and increase immune system functioning. Relaxation techniques include:
    • Guided imagery-a relaxation technique that involves visualizing serene images to relieve pain, nausea and fatigue
    • Biofeedback-learning to control specific body functions such heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension with the help of a special machine
    • Self-hypnosis
    • Deep breathing exercises
  • Tai chi-physical movements combined with deep breathing and meditation. For some cancer patients, tai chi helps improve pain, fatigue and difficulty sleeping. Tai chi can also help increase endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.
  • Yoga-an ancient Indian practice combing both the mind and body. The various types of yoga usually combine physical poses, breathing exercises and meditation. Yoga may improve anxiety, depression and stress in cancer patients. Since yoga is a physical activity, ask your healthcare provider if yoga is safe for you before starting.
If you are suffering fromConsider trying
Anxiety, depression, stressAcupuncture, aromatherapy, exercise, hypnosis, massage therapy, meditation, music therapy, yoga
Chemotherapy-induced nausea/ vomitingAcupuncture, aromatherapy, hypnosis, massage therapy, music therapy
FatigueAcupuncture, aromatherapy, exercise, meditation, tai chi, yoga
PainAcupuncture, hypnosis, massage therapy, music therapy, relaxation techniques
Sleep problemsAcupuncture, meditation, relaxation techniques, yoga

Safety Precautions

Some complementary therapies have been found ineffective or harmful to patients undergoing cancer treatments. This list is not all-inclusive. For more information, talk with your doctor.

  • St. John's wort, which is commonly used as an antidepressant, can interfere with chemotherapeutic agents.
  • Some herbs and vitamins, such as feverfew, vitamin E, ginkgo and garlic can disrupt blood clotting and often need to be discontinued before surgery.
  • Dietary antioxidants may interact with radiation or chemotherapy.
  • Large doses of vitamins can be harmful. Although some dietary supplements may be helpful to promote health in some persons with cancer, megadoses of vitamins haven't been shown to provide any benefit in comfort or survival and may cause diarrhea, renal stones, iron overload and gastrointestinal discomfort. For example, overdoses of vitamin A (25,000 IU or more daily) may cause severe liver disease, and high doses of vitamin B6 (more than 100 mg daily) may cause balance difficulties or nerve injury.
  • Laetrile, a drug once considered as a possible cancer treatment, can cause cyanide poisoning. It is not approved by the FDA and is not an effective anticancer therapy.
  • Shark cartilage has been touted as a way to boost the immune system to fight cancer but no scientific evidence has proven that it is an effective treatment.

The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have warned the public to be aware of fraudulent cancer treatments. The internet is full of “miracle cures,” “scientific breakthroughs” and “secret ingredients” to treat or prevent cancer. Some of these fraudulent treatments may be dangerous and cause physical harm or interfere with proven effective treatments. Any patient considering using an anticancer product seen in an advertisement or online should talk with a healthcare provider first.

Related Links

  • Integrative Medicine and Complementary Therapies Facts
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