Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Cancer

Medically Reviewed on 2/3/2023

A person getting acupuncture therapy needles on their back
Alternative medicine involves procedures and therapies that are not typically used in conventional medical practice such as Chinese medicine, acupuncture, Ayurveda, homeopathy, and naturopathy. 

According to a survey by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, about 40 percent of Americans think cancer can be treated solely with complementary medicines. This is concerning because research suggests that alternative cancer remedies have considerably greater mortality rates than conventional cancer treatments.

  • The terms "alternative," "complementary," and "lifestyle" medicines are used to refer to a wide range of items, procedures, and therapies that are not a part of conventional or standard medical practice.
  • Complementary therapy typically refers to treatments used in addition to regular treatment, whereas alternative therapy refers to nonstandard treatment used in place of standard treatment.
  • In the more recent area of lifestyle medicine, the disease is prevented and treated without the need for medication by engaging in a good diet, regular exercise, and other healthy activities.

What are the types of complementary and alternative medicine?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) comes in a wide variety of forms. Some of them function in similar ways. Examples of CAM include

Traditional alternative medicine has been practiced for a long time and includes well-liked therapeutic modalities. The following are a few examples:

  • Chinese medicine: Uses mind and body techniques to address health issues. These might include herbal remedies, tai chi and acupuncture
  • Acupuncture: Tiny needles are pierced into the skin at specific points across the body. The goal of this is to alter the body’s energy in various ways.
  • Ayurveda: This is an Indian method of treating disease. It uses herbal remedies, physical activity, and particular eating regimens.
  • Homeopathy: This medical practice originated in Germany and employs remedies made of minerals, herbs, and animals. 
  • Naturopathy: This method blends alternative and standard medicine.

Body: Since the beginning of medical care, touch has been utilized in treatment. The concept behind healing by touch is that a disease or injury in one region of the body might have an impact on all other parts. These techniques employ hands-on therapies, which include

  • Chiropractic: A type of manipulation of the spine, joints, and skeletal system.
  • Massage: A therapy where the soft tissues of the body are kneaded, rubbed, tapped, and stroked.
  • Tai chi: A form of moderate exercise and meditation that incorporates controlled breathing and slow body movements.
  • Yoga: An age-old system of practices that combines controlled breathing, positions, and meditation to help the body and mind be in harmony.
  • Reflexology: A type of massage in which pressure is applied on certain points of the hands or feet, which are thought to correspond with certain body parts.

Mind: Studies have reported that people heal better with good emotional and mental health. Therapies using the mind include

  • Biofeedback: Using specialized gadgets, the person takes control of some body functions (such as heart rate and blood pressure).
  • Hypnosis: A trance-like state in which one is more concentrated on specific emotions, thoughts, visuals, and behaviors. An individual might experience increased serenity and receptivity to advice, which promotes recovery.
  • Meditation: Focuses on breathing exercises or repeating words or phrases to calm the mind and minimize unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

Diet and herbs: Lean meats, fresh vegetables, whole grains, and fruits can all be part of a nutritious diet. However, most harmful fats, oils, processed foods, and simple carbs in our diets are unhealthy. There are issues with both nutritional excess and deficit. Both may result in long-lasting (chronic) disorders. A few dietary and herbal treatments address the body's nutritional balance. These therapies consist of

  • Vitamins: Nutrients the body needs in small amounts to function and stay healthy
  • Dietary supplements: Products added to the diet that may contain ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, and herbs.
  • Botanicals: Include plants or parts of plants. For instance, cannabis, herbs, and spices such as turmeric or cinnamon.
  • Special foods or diets

Senses: Some people think that the senses can influence general health. This includes touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. Therapies involving the senses include

  • Creative outlets: These deal with interests such as art, music, or dance.
  • Guided imagery: Concentrates on positive mental imagery, such as conjuring up situations, images, or experiences to aid physical recovery.
  • Aromatherapy


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What are the advantages associated with alternative and complementary therapy?

While undergoing cancer therapy under a doctor's supervision, some supplementary therapies have been researched and demonstrated to help people feel better. Examples might include guided imagery to help with pain relief during medical procedures, peppermint, ginger tea to help with nausea, or meditation to relieve tension. Numerous alternative therapies have a low risk of side effects and won't hinder your cancer therapy. Here are a few instances:

  • According to certain research, massage therapy can improve alertness while reducing tension, anxiety, despair, and discomfort.
  • Many people find comfort in prayer and spirituality as they cope with the emotional repercussions of cancer.
  • Yoga and tai chi have both been proven to help some people with strength and balance.
  • The use of music or art therapy can improve health and quality of life.
  • Biofeedback uses monitoring tools to give users cognitive control over body functions including heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, perspiration and muscle tension, which are often managed automatically.
  • Acupuncture may help with mild pain and some types of nausea.

What are the dangers associated with alternative and complementary therapy?

Some of these treatments make health claims utilizing a strategy that sounds straightforward, healthy, and free from negative side effects. Yet this isn't always the case. Some concerns include

  • Cancer may continue to grow and spread to other organs if an alternative therapy is used instead of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or another conventional type of treatment.
  • Some complementary and alternative medicines have been linked to catastrophic side effects, including death.
  • When consumed in excess, certain vitamins and minerals can raise one's chance of developing cancer or other diseases. Some companies violate the FDA guidelines for making accurate claims and labeling supplements. Dietary supplements sometimes include hazardous pollutants due to manufacturing or handling processes.
Medically Reviewed on 2/3/2023
Image source: iStock Images