Cancer Treatment: Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Many people with cancer are exploring complementary therapies. These methods focus on the mind, body, and spirit. They do not take the place of medical therapies, but add to them. They can reduce stress, lessen side effects from cancer and cancer treatments, and enhance well-being. And they can help you feel more in control; it is something you can do for yourself.

A few of the therapies available are described here. Many more therapies exist such as art therapy, humor, journaling, reiki, music therapy, pet therapy and others. You may want to check with your doctor before using these techniques, especially if you have lung problems. A social worker, psychologist, or nurse may be able to help you with these therapies. You may also want to read books, listen to audiotapes, and watch videotapes about these techniques.


With training in biofeedback, you can control body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. A machine will sense when your body shows signs of tension and lets you know in some way such as making a sound or flashing a light. The machine also gives you feedback when you relax your body. Eventually, you can control your relaxation responses without having to depend on feedback from the machine. Your doctor, nurse, or social worker can refer you to someone trained in teaching biofeedback.


Distraction is the use of an activity to take your mind off your worries or discomforts. Talking with friends or relatives, watching TV, listening to the radio, reading, going to the movies, or working with your hands by doing needlework or puzzles, building models, or painting are all ways to distract yourself. Many cancer centers now have music or creative art therapists who can be very helpful to you while you are getting treatment for your cancer. Ask your nurse or social work department about possible resources in your area.


Hypnosis puts you in a deeply-relaxed state that can help reduce discomfort and anxiety. You can be hypnotized by a qualified person, or you can learn how to hypnotize yourself. If you are interested in learning more, ask your doctor, nurse, or social worker to refer you to someone trained in the technique.


Imagery is a way of daydreaming that uses all your senses. It is usually done with your eyes closed. To begin, breathe slowly and feel yourself relax. Imagine a ball of healing energy-- perhaps a white light--forming somewhere in your body. When you can "see" the ball of energy, imagine that as you breathe in you can blow the ball to any part of the body where you feel pain, tension, or discomfort such as nausea. When you breathe out, picture the air moving the ball away from your body, taking with it any painful or uncomfortable feelings. (Be sure to breathe naturally; do not blow.) Continue to picture the ball moving toward you and away from you each time you breathe in and out. You may see the ball getting bigger and bigger as it takes away more and more tension and discomfort. To end the imagery, count slowly to three, breathe in deeply, open your eyes, and say to yourself, "I feel alert and relaxed."

Massage Therapy

The idea that touch can heal is an old one. The first written records of massage date back 3,000 years ago to China. Massage therapy involves touch and different methods of stroking and kneading the muscles of the body. A licensed massage therapist should do the therapy. Talk to your doctor before beginning this therapy.

Meditation and Prayer

Meditation is a relaxation technique that allows you to focus your energy and your thoughts on something very specific. This is especially helpful when your mind and body are stressed from cancer treatment. For example, you may want to repeat a word (over and over), or look at an object, such as a picture. Another form of meditation is allowing your thoughts, feelings, and images to flow through your mind. For patients who believe in a higher spiritual power, prayer can provide strength, comfort and inspiration throughout the cancer experience. Whether you pray alone, with family and friends, or as a member of a religious community, prayer may help. A member of the clergy or your spiritual advisor can help you incorporate prayer into your daily life.

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