Every patient aspires to have a seamless relationship with their healthcare team, hoping for mutual understanding and shared decision-making. However, you may occasionally face disagreement or resistance from your medical team about certain aspects of your care, such as the use of 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-carelifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices.

In an integrative approach, complementary therapies and self-care practices are used alongside conventional treatments with the aim to enhance well-being, manage side effects, and improve survival. These therapies and practices can include mind-body therapies, supplements, diet, exercise, and more. Despite growing evidence of the benefits of many therapies and practices, some oncologists can be hesitant, often concerned, about potential interactions with standard treatments or the lack of robust evidence supporting some therapies.

So, what might you do when your oncologist doesn’t support your desire to incorporate complementary therapies and self-care practices into your care plan?

Empower yourself with knowledge

If you intend to try a specific complementary therapy, arm yourself with as much solid, scientific information about it as possible. Providing this information to your oncologist might help to open your oncologists’ mind about the benefits of these approaches. You may also find that some complementary therapies are in fact not advisable. CancerChoices’ evidence-based reviews of complementary therapies can serve as a resource.  

Facilitate an open dialogue

Open communication can be incredibly powerful. It is important to be clear that your intention is to use the therapies and practices as a complement—used alongside—rather than as an alternative to conventional treatments. See Integrative Oncology Is Not Alternative Medicine ›

It’s also important to be clear about the types of therapies you are considering. Some therapies, such as yoga, meditation, and some other mind-body therapies, have minimal risks. Other therapies, including supplements and off-label drugs or certain diets, can involve interactions and risks and do need physician guidance. The risks and benefits of all these therapies are not the same, nor are they the same for all people, as you may have other medical conditions or use medications that would make some therapies too risky. 

If your doctor disagrees with your decision to use complementary therapies and practices, it’s beneficial to understand precisely why. They might be concerned about potential adverse interactions between the complementary therapies and your cancer treatments or other medications, or they may not see sufficient evidence to support the use of specific practices. This is where having authoritative, evidence-based information to show your doctor can be especially helpful.

Another factor may also be that most oncologists who specialize in conventional treatments have not received training in the use of complementary therapies. They therefore may be wary of their incorporation because they don’t have the training to adequately offer guidance. In addition to this, some may have witnessed patients who have declined conventional treatments for alternative rather than complementary treatments and subsequently and sadly experienced a rapid decline in their health. By understanding their perspective, you can both consider and address it.

Seek a second opinion or consultation

Consulting another oncologist or a physician specializing in integrative medicine can provide additional insights on your treatment plan and offer another opinion about the use of complementary therapies. Diversifying the expert opinions you receive can serve to empower your decision-making process. In doing so, you may also find a new practitioner who is more aligned with your approach or get a better understanding of your doctor’s concerns.  

Work with trained professionals

Consider working with professionals specially trained in the field of complementary therapies. Integrative oncologists, naturopathic oncologists, some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and others can provide guidance on suitable complementary therapies and work collaboratively with your oncology team. Integrative oncologists and naturopathic oncologists in particular are trained in the interactions between conventional cancer treatments and complementary therapies, offering additional expertise to support you and your oncologist. CancerChoices created a resource that describes the various types of integrative practitioners and includes links to directories to guide you in finding them. 
Decision-making when it comes to cancer treatment is a complex process, requiring a careful balance between your healthcare team’s guidance, the available evidence, and what matters most to you. Complementary therapies and self-care practices can offer many ways to support your well-being during and after cancer treatment. An evidence-informed approach, open dialogue, and collaborative care can support you in integrating them into your care.

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About the Author

CancerChoices Staff

The CancerChoices staff blend a wide array of medical and research experience, including training and practice in conventional and naturopathic medicine.

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The CancerChoices staff blend a wide array of medical and research experience, including training and practice in conventional and naturopathic medicine. Laura Pole has decades of experience in oncology nursing care, participation in cancer retreats, and patient navigation. Andy Jackson is a practicing physician with training in research methods and experience in medical education. Nancy Hepp and Maria Williams are trained and experienced researchers and writers.

CancerChoices Staff