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Thinking About Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Guide for People With Cancer

  • Updated: 03/07/2013

Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

We are learning about CAM therapies every day, but there is still more to learn. Consumers may use the terms "natural," "holistic," "home remedy," or "Eastern medicine" to refer to CAM. However, experts use five categories to describe it. These are listed below with a few examples for each. (For a complete list of therapies, go to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.)

Mind-Body Medicines

These are based on the belief that your mind is able to affect your body. Some examples are:

  • Meditation: Focused breathing or repetition of words or phrases to quiet the mind;
  • Biofeedback: Using simple machines, the patient learns how to affect certain body functions that are normally out of one's awareness (such as heart rate);
  • Hypnosis: A state of relaxed and focused attention in which the patient concentrates on a certain feeling, idea, or suggestion to aid in healing;
  • Yoga: Systems of stretches and poses, with special attention given to breathing;
  • Imagery: Imagining scenes, pictures, or experiences to help the body heal;
  • Creative outlets: Such as art, music, or dance.

Biologically Based Practices

This type of CAM uses things found in nature. This includes dietary supplements and herbal products. Some examples are:

  • Vitamins
  • Herbs
  • Foods
  • Special diets

A note about nutrition: It's common for people with cancer to have questions about different foods to eat during treatment. Yet it's important to know that there is no one food or special diet that has been proven to control cancer. Too much of any one food is not helpful, and may even be harmful. Because of nutrition needs you may have, it's best to talk with the doctor in charge of your treatment about the foods you should be eating.

Manipulative and Body-Based Practices

These are based on working with one or more parts of the body. Some examples are:

  • Massage: Manipulation of tissues with hands or special tools;
  • Chiropractic care (ky-ro-PRAK-tik): A type of manipulation of the joints and skeletal system;
  • Reflexology (ree-flex-AH-lo-gee): Using pressure points in the hands or feet to affect other parts of the body.

Energy Medicine

Energy medicine involves the belief that the body has energy fields that can be used for healing and wellness. Therapists use pressure or move the body by placing their hands in or through these fields. Some examples are:

  • Tai Chi (ty-CHEE): Involves slow, gentle movements with a focus on the breath and concentration;
  • Reiki (RAY-kee): Balancing energy either from a distance or by placing hands on or near the patient;
  • Therapeutic touch (thair-a-PYU-tik): Moving hands over energy fields of the body.

Whole Medical Systems

These are healing systems and beliefs that have evolved over time in different cultures and parts of the world. Some examples are:

  • Ayurvedic medicine (eye-yer-VAY-dik): A system from India emphasizing balance among body, mind, and spirit;
  • Chinese medicine: Based on the view that health is a balance in the body of two forces called yin and yang. Acupuncture (AK-yoo-PUNK-cher) is a common practice in Chinese medicine that involves stimulating specific points on the body to promote health, or to lessen disease symptoms and treatment side effects;
  • Homeopathy (home-ee-AH-puh-thee): Uses very small doses of substances to trigger the body to heal itself;
  • Naturopathic medicine (na-chur-o-PATH-ik): Uses different methods that help the body naturally heal itself.