What are complementary and alternative medicines?

People may want to use complementary medicines with their hospital treatment to help them feel better and cope during treatment. A complementary therapist will not claim to be able to cure your cancer.

Alternative therapists will offer alternative medicines instead of a hospital treatment. Often, people promoting alternative medicines claim they will cure your cancer or work better than your regular cancer treatment. There is no scientific evidence to support or prove these claims are true. Hospital treatments have had years of scientific research and testing to prove they work. Choosing to have alternative therapies over hospital medicine may risk your chances of recovery (getting better).

A man sitting by a lake

How can complementary medicines help?

Complementary therapies may help you cope with your cancer treatment by:

  • improving your quality of life.
  • improving your general health and wellbeing.
  • giving you a sense of control during your cancer experience.
  • helping control anxiety (fear), stress, difficulty sleeping, and depression.
  • helping reduce symptoms of cancer and side-effects of chemotherapy or radiation treatment, for example, pain, nausea, loss of appetite, breathlessness, constipation, diarrhoea, or fatigue (extreme tiredness).

Some medicines may make your hospital treatments less effective.

Talk about any therapies with your doctor and tell your CAM therapist about any hospital cancer treatments you’re using.

Do alternative therapies help?

Alternative therapies are used in place of hospital medical treatments. Many of these therapies do not have the support of health professionals because there is no proof they work. The Cancer Society of New Zealand does not recommend using alternative therapies in place of hospital treatments. If you are thinking about using alternative therapy we suggest you talk about it with your doctor.

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What are the different types of complementary therapies?

There are many complementary therapies that can be used with hospital treatments. There are five main groups of therapies:

Body therapies

Body therapies work by moving different parts of your body. Therapies people often use include:

  • Gentle massage: used to help circulation(blood flow), ease tension (loosen tight muscles) and lower stress.
  • Reflexology: uses pressure points on the feet and hands to remove pain felt in different parts of the body.
  • Osteopathy: therapy is based on improving your health through gently moving bones and muscles to ease pain and help you feel better.
  • Chiropractic therapy: This therapy is based on moving parts of the spinal column (the back).

For pain management “evidence does not support chiropractic manipulation for cancer patients”.*

* Cassileth, Barrie et al. ‘Complementary therapies for cancer pain.’ In Current Pain and Headache Reports. Volume 11, Number 4. New York: Current Medicine Group LLC, 2007.

Mind-body therapies

These therapies come from the belief that you can affect

the health of your body through the power of your mind.

Commonly used examples are:

  • Hypnosis: use of suggestion in the mind to help with healing or mental wellbeing.
  • Art therapy: therapy that uses creative ways to help cope with your feelings.
  • Meditation: relaxation and breathing methods to relax you and make you feel calm.
  • Yoga: A set of exercises that use movement and breathing to control the body and mind.
  • Biofeedback: use of technology(machines), such as heart rate monitors to teach people how certain body parts, systems, and how they work are affected by their where we live.

How much does CAM cost?

Some complementary therapies can cost a lot of money. Make sure that you ask how much the therapy will cost before you make your decision. It is also worthwhile asking your cancer care team if the hospital, Cancer Society or hospice offer any free or low-cost complementary treatments.

Energy-based therapies

These therapies are based on the belief that the body

is made up of energy fields that can be used to heal or

promote wellness. Examples include:

  • Reiki and Therapeutic touch: the belief is that therapists balance inner vital energy by using their hands to move over energy fields in the person’s body.
  • Tai Chi: a Chinese martial art combining controlled breathing, concentration and balance with slow and gentle movements.