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Topics in Complementary and Alternative Therapies (PDQ®)

Patient Version

Mind-Body Therapies and Massage

Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants (flowers, herbs, or trees) as therapy to improve physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Patients with cancer use aromatherapy mainly as supportive care to improve their quality of life, such as lowering stress and anxiety. Aromatherapy may be combined with other complementary treatments (e.g., massage and acupuncture) as well as with standard treatment.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that helps patients change their behavior by changing the way they think and feel about certain things. CBT may be helpful in treating many side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

Thinking and behavioral interventions focus on positive thoughts and images instead of negative thoughts and behaviors. Patients may gain a sense of control and develop coping skills to deal with the disease and its symptoms. These interventions also show promise for the treatment of insomnia in patients with cancer.

Relaxation and imagery techniques may be used for short periods of pain or discomfort (e.g., during procedures). Quick, simple techniques are useful when the patient has trouble concentrating due to severe pain, anxiety, fatigue, or nausea.

CBT for may be helpful for depression in patients with cancer. Most counseling or talk therapy programs for depression are offered in both individual and small-group settings. CBT may also help decrease a cancer patient's fatigue by working on cancer-related factors that make fatigue worse.

CBT may be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in patients with cancer. The treatment can focus on solving problems, teaching coping skills, and providing a supportive setting for the patient.


Hypnosis is a trance-like state that allows a person to be more aware and focused and more open to suggestion. Under hypnosis, the person can concentrate more clearly on a specific thought, feeling, or sensation without becoming distracted.

Manual Lymphedema Therapy

Manual lymphedema therapy is a massage that helps move lymph fluid out of a swollen arm or leg into healthy lymph nodes where it can drain.


Massage therapy has been studied as part of supportive care in managing cancer-related pain. Massage may help improve relaxation and benefit mood. Massage stimulates the release of substances that relieve pain and give a feeling of well-being and increases blood and lymphatic circulation.

  • See the Integrative Interventions section in the PDQ patient summary on Pain for more information about the role of massage in the management of cancer pain.

Music Interventions for Pain

Music interventions may help relieve pain and lessen anxiety in some patients. Music therapy and music medicine have been used to relieve pain caused by cancer and by procedures and treatments.

  • See the Integrative Interventions section in the PDQ patient summary on Pain for information about studies investigating the effect of music on pain.


Qigong is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that combines movement, meditation, and controlled breathing. Its purpose is to enhance the vital energy or life force that keeps a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health in balance.

  • See the Exercise section in the PDQ patient summary on Fatigue for more information about how qigong is being studied in cancer-related fatigue.


Studies have shown that religious and spiritual values are important to most Americans. Many patients with cancer rely on spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to help them cope with their disease. For healthcare providers, spiritual or religious well-being are sometimes viewed as an aspect of complementary and alternative medicine.

  • See the PDQ patient summary on Spirituality for information about religion, spirituality, spiritual well-being, and health.


Yoga is an ancient system of practices used to balance the mind and body through exercise, meditation (focusing thoughts), and control of breathing and emotions. Yoga is being studied as a way to relieve stress and treat sleep problems in cancer patients.

  • Updated: March 13, 2015