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Categories > Complementary Medicine > Understanding complementary medicine

Complementary remedies
What may help
Science is still learning
Before you try an alternative therapy


Protect yourself
Protect yourself

  • Don’t assume that if it’s natural or comes from a food, it’s safe for you to take.
  • Don’t assume more is better. High doses of some foods and supplements can have pharmaceutical-like side effects.
  • Don’t delay or skip your planned conventional treatments.
  • Do go to well-known government, cancer center or university Web sites for information about alternative treatments. Try www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/treatment/cam and www.quackwatch.com to learn more.
  • Do talk with your healthcare provider before trying any therapy, herb or supplement.

Many people with cancer try alternative or complementary therapies such as vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, enzymes, amino acids, hormones and herbs in an effort to bolster their immune system or kill cancer cells. However, unproven remedies can do more harm than good. Some treatments may reduce chemotherapy’s or radiation’s effectiveness and cause complications during or after surgery—as well as empty your wallet.

What may help

That said, some approaches can benefit people with cancer—not as a cure but as a way to help relieve side effects, ease pain and anxiety and improve well-being. These include:

  • Acupuncture. A treatment in which tiny needles are inserted into your skin to stimulate or restore your natural energy flow may help manage chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting and control pain associated with surgery.
  • Hypnotherapy. A relaxation method that uses hypnosis, a state of deep concentration, may help control pain and reduce nausea and vomiting.
  • Aromatherapy. One or more of 40 fragrant oils are used to affect mood and promote a general sense of well-being.
  • Massage therapy. A practitioner kneads your body’s soft tissues (skin, muscles and tendons) to help reduce stress and tension and promote relaxation.

Science is still learning

Many studies to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of nonconventional approaches to cancer and treatment side effects are underway. Current research topics at the National Institutes of Health include:

  • acupuncture to reduce the symptoms of advanced colorectal cancer
  • shark cartilage with chemotherapy plus radiation therapy in patients with non-small cell lung cancer
  • hyperbaric oxygen therapy with laryngectomy patients (people who have had all or part of their larynx removed)
  • massage therapy for cancer-related fatigue
  • chemotherapy compared with pancreatic enzyme therapy plus a specialized diet for treating pancreatic cancer
  • mistletoe extract and chemotherapy for treating solid tumors

Before you try an alternative therapy

Talk to your healthcare provider about your interest in any nonconventional therapies. He or she may have information about the treatment, direct you to more research or offer guidelines for safe use. You may at times need to avoid certain types of massage, such as when your platelets are low. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider about any other treatments you use including herbs and vitamins.

Maintain a healthy degree of skepticism and use your common sense. If there were something that cured cancer, we’d all know about it by now—and someone would be very rich!