My thoughts on complementary cancer therapies
Patients can be overwhelmed by the huge offerings of complementary therapies available. I am commonly asked by cancer patients what options are available to help improve their cancer recovery and relieve treatment side effects.
Firstly, it’s important for patients to know the difference between conventional, complementary and alternative therapies.
Conventional treatments are based on scientific evidence often obtained through clinical trials.
They control, slow and treat various cancer types using surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional treatments.
Alternative therapies might say they can “cure cancer,” or are “natural” but they have not been scientifically tested in robust clinical trials, and health professionals should not recommend it as a treatment unless it has been scientifically proven to work. Always talk to a medical doctor before considering any alternative therapy.
Complementary therapies are used alongside conventional medical treatments to support and enhance a patient's quality of life and wellbeing.
Complementary therapies will not cure the person's cancer but may relieve symptoms such as pain and fatigue or assist to increase the likelihood of response of conventional treatments. Some have been shown to be scientifically tested (but not all), and research is growing in this area.
Cancer Council Australia reports two out of three people in Australia use one or more types of complementary therapies during or after cancer treatment. Cancer Council Australia reports the following complementary therapies which are most often used by people with cancer:
- Body-based therapies involve working with the physical body and include acupuncture, aromatherapy, reflexology, tai chi, yoga and massage.
- Mind body therapies include meditation, relaxation, art therapy, spiritual practices, guided imagery and hypnosis. You can read my article on the benefits of meditation for cancer recovery here.
- Talking therapies offer emotional and psychological support such as one-on-one with a trained counsellor or psychologist, or in a group of people who come together to share their experiences and support each other.
- Lifestyle approaches, such as a healthy diet and regular exercise may help cancer patients’ quality of life or help to relieve symptoms such as fatigue.
- Therapies using herbs and plants such as Chinese herbal medicine.
Always talk to your doctor before starting any complementary therapy. Sometimes people think natural products such as herbs and vitamins are safe, but some products may affect how well other conventional medicines work in the body.
Benefits of complementary therapies
- It allows a patient to take a more active role in their cancer journey.
- It provides a holistic view of treating the whole person. Poor physical health can affect you mentally, and poor mental health can affect you physically.
- It may help patients to better cope with managing the symptoms and side effects of conventional cancer treatment.
My advice on using complementary therapies
It can be overwhelming or difficult to decide which complementary treatments to try first (or whether to try any at all).
Selecting a complementary therapy will depend on the goals a patient is trying to achieve, and what symptoms or side effects a patient would like to help alleviate. For example, if a patient is struggling to deal with their feelings during treatment than I would suggest trying mind-body therapies first. Or perhaps the patient is experiencing side effects such as lymphoedema, then I would recommend trying specialised lymphatic massage which may help reduce the symptoms of lymphoedema.
If I was diagnosed with cancer I would certainly incorporate exercise into my recovery. There is evidence that physical exercise will assist patients tolerating treatments better and help improve survival outcomes. When appropriately prescribed and monitored, exercise is safe for people with cancer and the risk of complications is relatively low. You can read more about the benefits of physical activity during gynaecological cancer in a previous article here. In my experience patients who are physically fit during cancer treatment cope better with treatment.
I would also eat a healthy and balanced diet which has numerous health benefits. If a patient is unsure where to start with their diet, try incorporating two cups of green tea per day. Small studies have shown that drinking green tea may potentially help cancer recovery. I would stay away from taking multivitamins or supplements, as there is no evidence to support this is beneficial.
Some of these therapies will involve a cost (for e.g., visiting a massage therapist), while others are free (for e.g., free mindfulness based apps). In my practice, we can tailor a complementary therapy plan that will work best for each individual. After trying some different options, patients will find what works best for them.
Complementary therapies cannot be used to treat a cancer alone. They can be used alongside conventional cancer treatment to help relieve symptoms and side effects and better cope with cancer treatment.
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