Miki Scheidel led the review of this post.

A growing body of research shows that using complementary therapies such as supplements and mind-body approaches and lifestyle practices such as diet and exercise alongside conventional treatment can improve the quality of life and treatment outcomes of people with cancer. The intentional, coordinated use of complementary therapies and lifestyle practices alongside conventional cancer treatments is called integrative oncology.

Many use the terms “complementary” and “alternative” interchangeably, but they indicate different uses of therapies. When a therapy or self-care practice is used in an intentional way along with conventional treatment, it is considered complementary. A therapy or practice used instead of conventional treatment is considered alternative. So it’s not the therapy or practice itself, but how it’s used that makes the difference. For instance, using a diet as a stand-alone treatment for cancer would be considered an alternative use. The same diet, however, might be recommended as a complement to cancer treatment, which would be complementary use.

Terms matter

Often, people with cancer use the term “alternative” when they may mean “complementary”—using a therapy or practice in addition to their conventional treatment. When the word “alternative” is used with an oncologist, the oncologist often reacts with a response such as “You’re making a big mistake”, likely because the oncologist has seen people who have attempted to try to heal with strictly alternative therapies return with larger or metastasized tumors that are far harder to treat. This is much different than an integrative approach using therapies and practices to complement conventional treatments.

The existence of integrative centers at leading comprehensive cancer care centers such as MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Dana Farber points to the growing evidence base behind these approaches in cancer care. Yet not every oncologist may be familiar with the benefits of incorporating evidence-based complementary therapies and practices nor with the term integrative oncology.  At a minimum, using terms such as integrative or complementary rather than alternative should open up a dialogue with your cancer care team. So can sharing the resources within CancerChoices with your oncologist, which link to the evidence behind these approaches. 

If you are considering alternative treatments

We recognize that people may have a range of reasons for wanting to pursue alternative therapies. Maybe there are no safe or effective conventional treatments left to try. Maybe there is a lack of trust in conventional care. Sometimes this choice may be based on fear or misinformation. Or perhaps too many overwhelming barriers get in the way of conventional treatment. It’s important to explore these reasons and to explore the possibility that an integrative approach rather than an alternative approach could lead to better outcomes and fewer adverse side effects from conventional treatment.

Even in the situation where there are no further curative conventional treatment options, an integrative approach explores ways to improve quality of life and perhaps find safe, evidence-based, life-extending complementary or cutting-edge therapies that a conventional medical oncologist wouldn’t be aware of.

CancerChoices’ position on alternative therapies

For decades, CancerChoices’ leadership has studied the field of integrative and alternative cancer care and has guided and navigated thousands of people with cancer who are interested in exploring options beyond conventional cancer treatments. We support and empower you to make your own decision. Yet we believe, and research shows,1Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, Yu JB. Use of alternative medicine for cancer and its impact on survival. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2018 Jan 1;110(1). that using alternative therapies in lieu of conventional therapies that are considered curative or otherwise effective could be dangerous. This is because delaying conventional treatment could close the window on its curative potential.

Explore CancerChoices resources on integrative cancer care

CancerChoices promotes healing through the use of integrative cancer care, including by sharing the best available information regarding self-care practices and complementary therapies with people with cancer and those who care for them. CancerChoices synthesizes the research on complementary therapies and provides digital handbooks on a wide range of topics, including eating well and managing side effects and symptoms.

Find more information for people who are considering alternative therapies.

The Difference between CAM and Integrative Medicine

CancerChoices advisor Donald Abrams, MD, discusses the difference between CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) and integrative medicine.

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About the Author

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS

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.

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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