Complementary cancer care
What is complementary cancer care, exactly? It’s a set of medical approaches, practices, and therapies believed to promote healing, treat disease, and/or foster wellness, but that are outside the conventional medical culture of a place. Complementary cancer care is often further defined by what it is not:
- It’s not typically considered conventional medical care—the care you’ll receive from a doctor of the dominant medical culture where you live. Because conventional medical care varies from country to country, some approaches may be conventional in one place and complementary in another.1Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Medicine. World Health Organization. Viewed August 4, 2021. Complementary therapies can become conventional over time, too. Acupuncture was considered strictly a complementary therapy just a few decades ago, but it has become widely accepted in many conventional practices.
- Complementary practices are often not regulated by government agencies or boards, and complementary therapies typically don’t need a prescription.
- It is not typically covered by private or government insurance, although this is changing in some places.
- Complementary approaches and therapies are probably not taught in the dominant medical culture’s schools, although this is also changing.
Complementary therapies include a wide range of approaches. In the US and Canada, these approaches and practices are generally considered complementary:
- Natural products, herbs, nutrients, and supplements ›
- Specialized diets and metabolic therapies ›
- Exercise and movement therapies ›
- Mind-body, spiritual, and consciousness-changing therapies ›
- Biological treatments such as vaccines
- Repurposed drugs, novel timing of treatments, and other off-label, overlooked or novel cancer approaches, which we call “ONCAs” ›
- Energy therapies ›
- Manipulative and body-based therapies ›
- Therapies using heat, cold, sound, light or cutting-edge radiotherapy
Some therapies are ancient and still widely used in traditional medicine in China, India, and other places. Others may be quite new. Still others—such as repurposed drugs—have been used for decades in conventional medicine, but not primarily for cancer care. Some require a prescription, while others can be found in supermarkets or health food stores. Some involve taking a pill, while others involve a practice or activity.
How complementary therapies are used in cancer care
One commonality is that none of these therapies has been shown to cure cancer on its own. These are generally supportive therapies that can bolster your body’s biological and chemical balance (terrain), address side effects, and reduce your risk of recurrence. Some can improve your response to conventional treatment. Thus, they complement conventional cancer care.
Complementary therapies can make a big difference in your ability to complete conventional treatments, in your quality of life, in your experience of side effects and symptoms, and in your overall health and wellness. For people who have run out of conventional treatment options, some may even prolong life and stabilize disease for a time. But we do not offer them to you as cancer cures, for the evidence does not support this.
Learn which therapies may help you
Because many complementary therapies aren’t likely to provide huge profits for manufacturers, less research money is available to study them which leads to fewer studies. A lack of evidence is not the same as evidence that a therapy doesn’t provide any medical benefit. See Understanding Research Studies ›
Although many complementary therapies lack large studies solidly showing efficacy, quite a bit of published evidence of smaller studies can inform us if complementary therapies may provide medical benefits. We share these studies in our therapy reviews. We also report when studies have not found that a therapy is effective.
Our research team has reviewed dozens of complementary therapies with you in mind. We began with therapies that our advisors told us they use with the most common types of cancer. We have expanded—and continue to add—more therapies across the spectrum of complementary care. We don’t shy away from more controversial therapies. See Reviews of Complementary Therapies ›
Work with a trained professional
Some therapies—especially several natural products, supplements, and repurposed drugs—may interact with your conventional treatments. Some may enhance the effects of chemotherapy or even protect noncancerous tissue, while others should not be used during chemo/radiotherapy or surgery. Some should not be used by people with other existing medical conditions (comorbidities), such as heart disease or kidney disease. Some natural products or supplements should not be used with each other. For these reasons, we say that wise use, guided by a medical professional trained in their use, is important. Finding Integrative Oncologists and Other Professionals ›
Words of guidance
Read some words of inspiration and guidance on complementary care and the cancer journey from Michael Lerner, CancerChoices co-founder and author of Choices in Healing.