Choices in 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 cancer care goes beyond conventional care. Complementary care offers therapies and practices that “complement” conventional therapies.
Complementary therapies that go beyond self care include herbs and supplements, repurposed drugs, mind-body approaches and many other kinds of therapies.
Three guidelines as you explore complementary therapies:
First, you may want to review the science on therapies that interest you. We have a growing database of complementary therapy reviews that can help.
Second, listen to your intuition. If you are drawn to a therapy, we believe you should consider it carefully. If the potential for harm is small, and if it will not be a financial burden for you, you risk very little by exploring it. As long as you’ve got your conventional therapies covered. As Donald Abrams, MD, says: “The lower the likelihood of harm, the lower the burden of proof.” Look at how experts use the therapy (see our reviews of complementary therapies).
Third, if a therapy is costly and you have to travel to get it, or if a center claims to cure your cancer, be far more careful. The biggest danger is practitioners or centers that claim to cure cancer using complementary therapies alone and who charge a lot and require travel. Some are easily discovered to be fraudulent. Others are sincere but may not deliver on their claims. Navigating the claims of these centers is a complex undertaking.
An optimal approach is to find a cancer navigator or guide knowledgeable about the kinds of practitioners or centers that interest you. Ralph Moss and his Moss Reports have been a standard resource for people investigating controversial centers for many years. The reports are quite costly but well worth the cost before you invest thousands of dollars in travel and the treatment. Whenever possible, it is wise to talk to patients and practitioners before you sign up for an expensive treatment protocol. Look for online reviews. Visiting the center and seeing it yourself before you sign up is best of all.
We hope our deeply researched resources on complementary therapies help you in your search.
Wishing you well,
Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices. He has led more than 200 Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats to date. His book Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer was the first book on integrative cancer care to be well received by prominent medical journals as well as by the patient and integrative cancer care community.
What is complementary cancer care?
What is complementary cancer care, exactly? It’s a set of medical approaches, practices and therapies that are 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 may not be taught in the dominant medical culture’s schools, although this is also changing.
What are complementary therapies?
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 approaches
- 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 methods
- 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 are complementary therapies 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.
We evaluate therapies separately for these medical benefits so that you can easily determine whether it meets your needs:
- Treating cancer
- Optimizing your body terrainthe internal conditions of your body, including nutritional status, fitness, blood sugar balance, hormone balance, inflammation and more
- Managing side effects and promoting wellness
- Reducing cancer risk
How can you find out if complementary therapies can help you?
We’ve reviewed, and continue to review, 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. More therapies will be added across the spectrum of complementary care. We don’t shy away from more controversial therapies.
In each review, you can quickly assess how a therapy may work best for you.
Research constraints in complementary cancer care
A lack of evidence is not the same as evidence that a therapy doesn’t provide any medical benefit. Because many complementary therapies aren’t likely to provide huge profits for manufacturers, less research money may be available. This limits the amount of research, and especially the size of research studies, on many therapies. Huge research studies lasting several years cost millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Complementary therapies often don’t have such funding.
However, quite a bit of published evidence of smaller studies helps us know if complementary therapies may provide medical benefits. We also report if evidence has failed to show that a therapy is effective (no evidence of an effect).
Sometimes a therapy hasn’t been studied rigorously, but medical experience over decades or even hundreds of years shows good effects and safety. We therefore include information about expert use of therapies in our reviews.
Work with someone who can guide you
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.
While being mindful of the cautions, you may find great benefit from using these therapies as appropriate for your cancer type and stage.
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|1||Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Medicine. World Health Organization. Viewed August 4, 2021.|