Complementary medicine refers to a broad range of health practices that may be used in addition to conventional medical care.These treatments do not replace conventional cancer care and are not intended to treat cancer, but research suggests that certain types of complementary therapies may help manage symptoms and side effects and improve a person’s overall sense of well-being.
Complementary medicine is often referred to in combination with alternative medicine as “complementary and alternative medicine” (also known as CAM). Alternative medicine refers to treatments that are used in place of conventional medical care. Since alternative treatments have not been shown to be effective for cancer treatment, this overview focuses on complementary medicine.
Integrative medicine refers to the coordinated delivery of both conventional and complementary medical treatment. Integrative medicine generally focuses on complementary therapies that have at least some high-quality evidence to support their efficacy and safety.
If you are interested in adding complementary therapy to your cancer treatment, talk with your cancer treatment team. They may be able to refer you to providers who have experience working with people with cancer. It’s also important to talk with your treatment team about the safety of the complementary therapies that you are considering. Some complementary therapies—such as certain dietary supplements and botanicals—can interfere with conventional cancer treatment and are not advised for people with cancer.
Conventional medicine is often referred to as Western or mainstream medicine, and is technically known as allopathic medicine. Examples of conventional cancer treatment include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and biologic therapies.
Complementary Therapies and Cancer
There are several common threads shared by the diverse therapies classified as complementary. Complementary medicine is generally considered holistic, looking at the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components that make up a whole person. And although the benefits of many complementary therapies remain uncertain, an increasing amount of research is being done in this field.
Patients may use complementary therapies in the following ways:
Manage Symptoms: Complementary therapy may be used to manage symptoms. The symptoms may be due to cancer or from side effects of treatment. In helping manage symptoms, complementary therapy may help improve quality of life.
Promote Wellness: Most complementary therapies are intended to promote wellness, which is more than the absence of disease. Wellness is the optimal overall health of an individual, including physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects. Many different activities promote wellness, from exercising to eating a healthy meal to attending a support group.
Types of Complementary Therapy
Whole Medical Systems: Whole medical systems involve complete systems of theory and practice that have evolved independent of and often prior to the conventional medical approach. Such systems include traditional systems of medicine practiced by indigenous people worldwide for thousands of years. Some of these well-known medical systems are traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Other alternative medical systems have developed more recently, such as homeopathy.
Natural Products: These products include herbs, dietary supplements, and probiotics. If you are thinking about using one of these products, be sure to discuss it with your physician first. Some products have well-documented health risks. Products may also be dangerous when used in combination with other medications, or in people with certain health problems.
Energy Therapies: Energy therapies are divided into two categories, those that originate from within the body (biofields) and those that are generated by sources outside of the body (external energy sources).
Biofield therapies are based on the theory that energy fields are generated within, and emanate from, the body and that disruption of a biofield results in disease. In some therapies, an individual performs certain postures to affect their biofields (e.g., Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Yoga). Some therapies attempt to manipulate biofields through touching the body (as in acupressure), while others move the practitioner’s hands through the biofield without touching the patient’s body to clear energetic imbalances (e.g., Reiki, Therapeutic Touch). Biofields may also be affected by substances such as flower remedies or crystals and stones, which may interact with the biofield to restore energetic harmony/balance. Very little research exists on biofields and conventional medicine has yet to verify their existence.
External energy sources include pulsed electrical fields, magnetic fields, radiowaves and direct or alternating current fields which may be used to treat cancer or manage symptoms, such as pain. Therapies using external energy sources are sometimes referred to as bioelectromagnetic-based therapies.
Manipulative and Body-Based Methods: This category includes methods that are based on manipulation of bone, soft tissues or organs by a practitioner or by the patient. It is based upon the theory that restoring skeletal, neuromuscular, soft tissue or organs to their correct location within the body harmonizes the entire system. Practitioners of these methods may believe that a disturbance in one part of the body creates disruptions that can manifest as disease or pain elsewhere in the body. Chiropractors, osteopaths and massage therapists are examples of practitioners employing these methods. Acupuncture is also considered to be a manipulative and body-based method.
Mind-Body Interventions: Mind-body interventions are designed to utilize the mind’s ability to affect bodily symptoms and function. Many mind-body interventions have been extensively studied, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychotherapy and patient education. As a result of such research, these therapies have been adopted by conventional medicine and are no longer considered CAM therapies. However, there are numerous other therapies utilizing mind-body interventions that remain to be studied. Examples of such therapies include meditation, dance, music, art therapy, guided imagery, yoga, acupuncture, and biofeedback.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine? Last updated May 2012.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Cancer and Complementary Health Practices. Last updated March 2012.