- Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine (see Question 1).
- It is important that the same scientific evaluation that is used to assess conventional approaches be used to evaluate CAM therapies (see Question 4).
- The National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health are sponsoring or cosponsoring various clinical trials (research studies with people) to study CAM therapies for cancer (see Question 6).
- It is important that patients inform all of their health care providers about any therapies they are currently using or considering. This is to help ensure a safe and coordinated course of care (see Question 8).
Questions and Answers About Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Cancer Treatment
What is complementary and alternative medicine?
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), as defined by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), is a group of different medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. Conventional medicine is medicine that is practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degrees and by health professionals who work with them, including physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. Other terms for conventional medicine include allopathy; Western, mainstream, orthodox, and regular medicine; and biomedicine. Some conventional medical practitioners are also practitioners of CAM.
This summary answers some frequently asked questions about the use of CAM therapies among the general public and about how CAM therapies are evaluated, and suggests sources for more information.
What is integrative medicine?
NCCIH defines integrative medicine as treatment that combines conventional medicine with CAM therapies that have been reported to be safe and effective after being studied in patients. In practice, many CAM therapies used in along with conventional medicine have not yet been well tested.
Are complementary and alternative therapies widely used?
Yes. Many CAM approaches are used by a large percentage of people in the general public and cancer patients.
The 2007 National Health Interview Survey reported about 4 out of 10 adults used CAM therapy in the past 12 months, with the most commonly used treatments being natural products and deep breathing exercises.
One large survey of cancer survivors reported on the use of complementary therapies. The therapies used most often were prayer and spiritual practice (61%), relaxation (44%), faith and spiritual healing (42%), and nutritional supplements and vitamins (40%). CAM therapies are used by 31-84% of children with cancer, both in and outside of clinical trials. CAM therapies have been used in the management of side effects caused by cancer or cancer treatment.
How are CAM approaches evaluated?
It is important that CAM therapies be evaluated with the same long and careful research process used to evaluate conventional treatments. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) are sponsoring a number of clinical trials (research studies) at medical centers to evaluate CAM therapies for cancer. A listing of these trials is available at the OCCAM Clinical Trials Web page.
Conventional cancer treatments have generally been studied for safety and effectiveness through a rigorous scientific process that includes clinical trials with large numbers of patients. Less is known about the safety and effectiveness of many CAM therapies. Research of CAM therapies has been slower for a number of reasons:
- Time and funding issues.
- Problems finding institutions and cancer researchers to work with on the studies.
- Regulatory issues.
Some CAM therapies have undergone careful evaluation. A small number of CAM therapies originally meant to be alternative treatments are finding a place in cancer treatment as complementary therapies that may help patients feel better and recover faster. One example is acupuncture. According to a panel of experts at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Consensus Conference in November 1997, acupuncture has been found to be effective in the management of chemotherapy -associated nausea and vomiting and in controlling pain associated with surgery. In contrast, some approaches, such as the use of laetrile, have been studied and found ineffective or possibly harmful.
What is the NCI Best Case Series Program?
The NCI Best Case Series Program, which was started in 1991, is one way CAM approaches that are being used in practice are being investigated. The program is overseen by NCI’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). Health care professionals who offer alternative cancer therapies submit their patients’ medical records and related materials to OCCAM. OCCAM conducts a critical review of the materials and develops follow-up research strategies for approaches that warrant NCI-initiated research.
Are NCI and NCCIH sponsoring clinical trials in complementary and alternative medicine?
NCI and NCCIH are currently sponsoring or cosponsoring various clinical trials to study complementary and alternative treatments for patients with cancer. Some of these trials study the effects of complementary approaches used in addition to conventional treatments, while others compare alternative therapies with conventional treatments. Current trials include the following:
- Effect of Coenzyme Q10 on doxorubicin blood levels in women undergoing treatment of breast cancer (NCT00976131).
- Acupuncture to prevent dry mouth and improve quality of life in head and neck cancer patients receiving radiation (NCT01266044).
- Effect of Tai Chi versus structured exercise on physical fitness and stress reduction in cancer survivors (NCT00246818).
- Acupressure for persistent cancer-related fatigue (NCT01281904).
Patients who are interested in taking part in these or any clinical trials should talk with their doctor.
Several clinical trials databases offer patients, family members, and health professionals information about research studies that use CAM. Clinical trials can be found by searching the following:
- The NCI’s PDQ Clinical Trials Database, which can be searched by using criteria such as cancer type, type of trial, geographic region, trial sponsorship, and/or drug name. This information is also available by calling the NCI’s Cancer Information Service (1–800–4–CANCER [1–800–422–6237]).
- The NCCIH Clinical Trials Web page, which can be searched by the type of treatment or disease.
- The OCCAM Clinical Trials Web page, which provides links to NCI’s PDQ Clinical Trials Database.
- The Clinical Trials.Gov Web page, which can be searched by the type of medical condition or intervention.
What should patients do when using or considering complementary and alternative therapies?
Cancer patients using or considering complementary or alternative therapy should discuss this decision with their doctor or nurse, as they would any therapeutic approach. Some complementary and alternative therapies may interfere with standard treatment or may be harmful when used with conventional treatment. It is also a good idea to become informed about the therapy, including whether the results of scientific studies support the claims that are made for it. Some resources for this information are provided in Question 9.
When considering complementary and alternative therapies, what questions should patients ask their health care providers?
- What benefits can be expected from this therapy?
- What are the risks associated with this therapy?
- Do the known benefits outweigh the risks?
- What side effects can be expected?
- Will the therapy interfere with conventional treatment?
- Is this therapy part of a clinical trial? If so, who is sponsoring the trial?
- Will the therapy be covered by health insurance?
Further information on evaluating CAM therapies and practitioners is available from NCCIH.
What federal agencies can provide more information about CAM therapies?
Patients, their families, and their health care providers can learn about CAM therapies from the following government agencies and resources:
- NCCIH is the federal government’s lead agency for scientific research on CAM. NCCIH is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, training CAM researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals.
- The NCCIH Clearinghouse provides information on NCCIH and on CAM, including fact sheets, other publications, and searches of federal databases of scientific and medical literature. Publications include the following:
- The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.
- NCCIH Clearinghouse
- Post Office Box 7923
- Gaithersburg, MD 20898–7923
- Toll-free in the United States: 1–888–644–6226
- International: 301–519–3153
- Callers with TTY equipment: 1–866–464–3615
- Fax-on-Demand service: 1–888–644–6226
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Web site: https://nccih.nih.gov/
NCI's OCCAM coordinates the activities of NCI in the area of complementary and alternative medicine. OCCAM supports CAM cancer research and provides information about cancer-related CAM to health providers and the general public on the NCI Web site.
NCI Cancer Information Service
U.S. residents may call the NCI Cancer Information Service toll free at 1–800–4–CANCER (1–800–422–6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
NCI’s PDQ, a comprehensive cancer information database, contains peer-reviewed summaries of the latest information about the use of CAM in the treatment of cancer. Each summary contains background information about the specific treatment, a brief history of its development, information about relevant research studies, and a glossary of scientific and medical terms. CAM summaries can be found on NCI's Web site.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- 5600 Fishers Lane
- Rockville, MD 20857
- Telephone: 1–888–463–6332 (toll free)
- Web site: http://www.fda.gov
- FDA’s Dietary Supplements Web page: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm153239.htm
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
The FTC enforces consumer protection laws and offers publications to guide consumers. The FTC also collects information about fraudulent claims.
- Consumer Response Center
- Federal Trade Commission
- Washington, DC 20580
- Telephone: 1–877–FTC–HELP (1–877–382–4357) (toll free)
- Callers with TTY equipment: 202–326–2502
- Web site: http://www.ftc.gov
CAM on PubMed
CAM on PubMed, a database accessible via the Internet, was developed jointly by NCCIH and the NIH National Library of Medicine (NLM). It contains bibliographic citations (from 1966 to the present) to articles on CAM published in scientifically based, peer-reviewed journals. These citations are a subset of NLM's PubMed system, which contains more than 11 million journal citations from the MEDLINE database and additional life science journals important to health researchers, practitioners, and consumers. CAM on PubMed also displays links to many publisher Web sites, which may offer the full text of articles.
- White JD: Complementary, alternative, and unproven methods of cancer treatment. In: DeVita VT Jr, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA, eds.: Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2001, pp 3147-57.
- Barnes PM, Bloom B, Nahin RL: Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults and children: United States, 2007. Natl Health Stat Report (12): 1-23, 2009. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Horneber M, Bueschel G, Dennert G, et al.: How many cancer patients use complementary and alternative medicine: a systematic review and metaanalysis. Integr Cancer Ther 11 (3): 187-203, 2012. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Gansler T, Kaw C, Crammer C, et al.: A population-based study of prevalence of complementary methods use by cancer survivors: a report from the American Cancer Society's studies of cancer survivors. Cancer 113 (5): 1048-57, 2008. [PUBMED Abstract]
- Kelly KM: Complementary and alternative medical therapies for children with cancer. Eur J Cancer 40 (14): 2041-6, 2004. [PUBMED Abstract]
- NIH Consensus Conference. Acupuncture. JAMA 280 (17): 1518-24, 1998. [PUBMED Abstract]
Changes to This Summary (03/24/2015)
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
About This PDQ Summary
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government’s center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the use of complementary and alternative medicine in the treatment of people with cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's Web site. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as “NCI’s PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary].”
The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/cam-cancer-treatment/patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use in the PDQ summaries only. If you want to use an image from a PDQ summary and you are not using the whole summary, you must get permission from the owner. It cannot be given by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the images in this summary, along with many other images related to cancer can be found in Visuals Online. Visuals Online is a collection of more than 2,000 scientific images.
The information in these summaries should not be used to make decisions about insurance reimbursement. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Managing Cancer Care page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov Web site can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site’s E-mail Us.