Complementary Care

Incorporating evidence-based complementary cancer care can reduce side effects, promote wellness and improve outcomes.

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

Complementary therapies include a wide range of approaches. In the US and Canada, these approaches and practices are generally considered complementary:

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.

Learn more

Helpful links

Authors

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Miki Scheidel

Co-Founder and Creative Director
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Miki Scheidel is Co-founder and creative director of CancerChoices. She led the effort to transform Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies, the prior version of CancerChoices, to its current form. Miki and her family were deeply affected by her father’s transformative experience with integrative approaches to metastatic kidney cancer. That experience inspires her work as president of the Scheidel Foundation and as volunteer staff at CancerChoices. She previously worked with the US Agency for International Development and Family Health International among other roles. She received her graduate degree in international development from Georgetown University, a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from George Mason University, and a Bachelor of Arts from Gettysburg College.

Miki Scheidel Co-Founder and Creative Director

Reviewer

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher and Program Manager
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Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher, program manager, and writer for CancerChoices. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher and Program Manager

Last update: February 8, 2024

Last full resource review: August 2021

CancerChoices provides information about integrative in cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan cancer care. We review complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocial therapy, and acupuncture therapies and self-care lifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

Our staff have no financial conflicts of interest to declare. We receive no funds from any manufacturers or retailers gaining financial profit by promoting or discouraging therapies mentioned on this site.

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