Complementary and Alternative Cancer Treatments

What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

Complementary and alternative cancer treatments are often lumped together. But to a cancer specialist, there is a big difference. Complementary therapy is used in addition to mainstream medical treatment. Alternative therapy is used instead of proven treatment. Another term you may hear is integrative medicine. This means combining CAM and standard care to try to treat cancer in a way that involves your body, mind and spirit. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) includes

"Few cancer specialists would argue with the use of complementary cancer therapies like meditation, acupuncture, or yoga. They can be used along with accepted treatments to help reduce stress, reduce nausea or improve well-being," says Eric Bernicker, MD, an oncologist at the Houston Methodist Cancer Center.

"We do get upset when alternative cancer treatments take the place of proven cancer treatments. That can be putting yourself in harm's way. The data is lacking for support of any alternative cancer treatments," says Dr. Bernicker.

If you have cancer, you may have considered using a complementary or alternative cancer treatment. According to surveys, 65 percent of people with cancer have tried one of these treatments. And even mainstream medical organizations are taking notice of which treatments can be effective. Both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute have websites devoted to complementary and alternative management for cancer. Before trying these treatments, you should visit these websites and then discuss the treatments with your doctor.

Herbs for Cancer Treatment Side Effects and Immune Boosters

Some herbal supplements may relieve cancer treatment's side effects, like nausea and vomiting. They might also help reduce pain and fatigue. But no herbal medicine has been found that can cure cancer.

"Lots of real medicines come from plants, but taking an herbal supplement is risky. I don't advise any herbal supplements during cancer treatment. It might interact with your cancer treatment and undercut therapy. After treatment is over, if you want to try an herbal supplement to boost your immune system, I would be less worried," says Bernicker.

One herb that may be helpful for cancer is astragalus. It comes from the root of the astragalus plant and has been used for centuries in China. As a cancer herb, it may boost your immune system and help you fight cancer. Most of the evidence comes from studies done on mice. The American Cancer Society says more studies are needed in people before this herb can be recommended.

Vitamins for Cancer

Vitamin C protected cancer cells more than healthy cells," says Bernicker.

In contrast, one large study of more than 14,000 men found that men who took vitamin and mineral supplements over 11 years reduced their risk of getting cancer by 8 percent compared to men who did not take vitamins and minerals. However, studies on individual vitamins A, C and E have been done. These substances are not harmless. Too much vitamin C can lead to kidney stones. Selenium and Vitamin E were studied to prevent prostate cancer. More users of vitamin E got prostate cancer. Selenium uses got more diabetes. Vitamin A in large doses can be dangerous. Too much beta carotene - a pro-vitamin - actually increased cancer risk in smokers.

Coenzyme Q10 is a diet supplement that may have some promise for cancer prevention. This substance is produced naturally in the body and may help prevent the cell damage that leads to cancer. A few small studies found that patients with breast cancer were helped by coenzyme Q10. In animal studies, coenzyme Q10 seems to have a protect against some types of cancer.


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Complementary Cancer Treatments That Work

On the bright side, several complementary therapies really could help you feel better:

  • Meditation. There is good evidence that learning how to meditate can help you reduce your stress, anxiety and fatigue. During meditation, you concentrate on your breathing and repeat calming phrases in your mind.
  • Acupuncture. This ancient remedy is part of Chinese medicine, and there is also some good evidence that acupuncture may help reduce nausea and vomiting caused by cancer. Some people use acupuncture to reduce cancer pain, although the evidence is not as strong.
  • Massage therapy. There is some evidence that massage therapy can help with cancer pain, nausea, anxiety and depression.
  • Hypnosis. Hypnosis is a state of deep concentration and relaxation. A panel of investigators at the National Institutes of Health found that hypnosis could reduce anxiety and pain. In cancer, hypnosis has been shown to reduce fear, pain, and fatigue in some patients.
  • Mind-body exercises. Exercises that combine movement, focused breathing and meditation have been shown to decrease fatigue, stress and depression in cancer patients. Examples of mind-body exercises include yoga and tai chi.

There are many more options for complementary and alternative cancer treatments, including biofeedback, special diets, art therapy, music therapy, and even prayer. But the bottom line is that complementary or alternative treatments alone can't cure cancer.

"Nobody wants to go through chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery for cancer. But those are the best treatments we have," says Bernicker. So remember these important points when making your decision about whether to try a complementary or an alternative treatment:

  • Always check with your doctor before trying any complementary or alternative cancer treatment.
  • Complementary and alternative cancer treatments should never delay or replace a proven treatment for cancer.
  • Don't assume that an herbal medicine or supplement is safe just because it is natural.
  • Be very wary of any alternative cancer treatment that promises a cure.
Medically reviewed by Jay B. Zatzkin, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Medical Oncology


National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "Cancer and Complementary Health Approaches."

Eric Bernicker, MD, Houston Methodist Cancer Center.

American Cancer Society: Complementary and Alternative Methods for Cancer Management."

National Cancer Institute: "Thinking About Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Guide for People With Cancer."

American Cancer Society: "Astragalus."

National Cancer Institute: "Coenzyme Q10."

American Cancer Society: "Hypnosis."