Health Library

Categories > Cancer > Living with cancer

Complementing tradition

The emotional and physical discomforts of being treated for cancer can take a lot out of a person. Today, most physicians support the use of what are called complementary treatments or integrative therapies. These therapies can boost a patient’s emotional health and increase overall well-being without interfering with medical treatment.

It’s important for patients and their families to understand that complementary methods cannot cure cancer. They can, however, improve a patient’s sense of control, reduce stress and pain, lessen side effects and improve quality of life. Complementary treatments should be used in addition to—not instead of—medical treatments.

The list below outlines complementary treatments that are likely to benefit cancer patients.

  • Yoga is a program of precise posture and breathing that originated in India. It reduces stress, pain and fatigue and contributes to overall physical fitness. Yoga, which is intended to unite the mind, body and spirit, can be practiced by people of all ages and physical conditions.
  • Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art. This gentle exercise program is made up of slow, graceful movements accompanied by rhythmic breathing. Tai chi improves agility, balance, stamina, flexibility and muscle tone while reducing stress and blood pressure.
  • Massage therapy is a systematized way of rubbing or kneading the body’s soft tissue. As the therapist’s hands work the muscles, blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow. Oxygen supply increases, and circulation is improved. Massage can relieve tension and reduce headaches, backache and insomnia. Cancer patients should talk to their doctors before beginning massage therapy as in some cases they may be advised to restrict massage to certain areas of the body.
  • Acupressure and acupuncture are types of highly localized massage. While acupuncture involves the use of needles, acupressure uses firm finger pressure. Both focus on specific “acupoints,” of which there are hundreds around the body. The idea is that applying pressure at a certain acupoint will relieve pain in a particular part of the body. Both methods appear to control pain and relieve nausea. They may work in part by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.
  • Prayer provides many cancer patients with feelings of hope, purpose and meaning. It can help to reduce stress and strengthen a patient’s will to live. Many believe that it also can promote healing.
  • Meditation helps people relax, which in turn can reduce stress and even relieve pain. Meditation involves eliminating thoughts of the past or future. Sitting quietly, someone who is meditating will concentrate only on his or her breathing, saying one random word as he or she breathes in, and another as he or she breathes out. This practice can help cancer patients gain a greater sense of personal control and spiritual calm.
  • Hypnosis is a method by which a person’s consciousness is altered. A hypnotized person is alert yet relaxed and is better able to respond to suggestion. Cancer patients can use hypnotherapy to reduce pain and stress and to promote relaxation.
  • Music, art and dance therapies can give patients a way to express their emotions. By providing an outlet for negative emotions such as grief and anger at being ill, such therapies can help patients come to terms with those feelings. That, in turn, reduces stress and its symptoms. Creative therapies also build patients’ self-esteem, give patients something to focus on other than their illness and help to promote a more positive view of the future.
  • Support groups provide patients with a chance to vent their feelings and to receive empathy and comfort from other people who understand what they’re experiencing. They also give patients a place to exchange ideas for coping with treatment side effects and other cancer-related issues.