Complementary therapies can help you manage the effects of cancer and its treatments. They can be used alongside conventional medical care.
Some clinicians encourage complementary therapies and these may be a part of clinical practice guidelines. You can use them while you undergo medical treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormonal therapies, immunotherapy or targeted therapies.
However, they should not replace medical treatments that your doctor has recommended.
The difference between complementary therapies and alternative therapies
Complementary therapies are used alongside medical treatment, but alternative therapies are used instead of medical treatments. There’s no evidence that alternative therapies help treat cancer. Some alternative therapies have been studied and found to be ineffective or even harmful.
Complementary therapies include:
- counselling and support group programs
- dietary therapies
- regular exercise
- guided imagery (a relaxation technique involving imagining peaceful scenes or events)
- herbal medicines
- music or art therapy
- nutritional supplements
- relaxation therapy.
Effectiveness and safety
If your clinician has recommended a complementary therapy, always check that it is backed by evidence. Unfortunately, there is less scientific evidence about the safety and effectiveness of complementary therapies than about conventional medical treatments.
But, there is evidence showing that some complementary therapies can improve the wellbeing of people with cancer. Many have been found to be safe to use with medical cancer treatments.
- relaxation techniques, massage and guided imagery can reduce anxiety and stress, improve coping, and relieve pain and some side effects of cancer and its treatments
- exercise can reduce fatigue and distress, and improve coordination and quality of life
- acupuncture can reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy
- good nutrition can help heal wounds and damaged tissue.
Complementary therapies are about taking a holistic approach to cancer treatment. They can’t remove cancer, prevent it from coming back, or stop it from spreading to other parts of the body. So always continue with your conventional medical treatment plan, as recommended by your doctor.
Not all complementary therapies are regulated or tested in clinical trials, so we don’t know how effective they are or what their long-term side effects might be.
Some complementary therapies can affect how other medical treatments work or stop them from working. Some may even be harmful if taken with medical treatments. So always:
- tell your medical team if you are using any complementary therapy
- tell your complementary therapist what cancer treatment and medicines you’re having.
If you experience any side effects that you think are from a complementary therapy, stop using it and talk to your complementary therapist and doctor.
Making informed decisions
Before deciding on any complementary therapy, make sure you are well informed about the therapy’s effectiveness, side effects and potential interaction with other treatments, as well as about the person recommending them.
Always see a qualified complementary therapist with appropriate qualifications who is happy to work with you and your multidisciplinary team.
Questions you could ask your complementary therapist include:
- What training do you have?
- What is the therapy and how does it work?
- What is the scientific evidence for the success of this therapy?
- What benefits does this therapy have?
- What side effects could there be?
- How common are the side effects?
- How will this therapy affect other treatments I am receiving?
- How much will this therapy cost?
See the Cancer Council for more information about complementary therapies, including a comprehensive list of questions to ask.