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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine includes practices such as massage, acupuncture, tai chi, and drinking green tea.

Credit: iStock

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard medical care. People with cancer may use CAM to:

  • Help cope with the side effects of cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain, and fatigue
  • Comfort themselves and ease the worries of cancer treatment and related stress
  • Feel that they are doing something to help with their own care
  • Try to treat or cure their cancer

Integrative medicine is an approach to medical care that combines standard medicine with CAM practices that have shown through science to be safe and effective. This approach often stresses the patient's preferences, and it attempts to address the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of health.

Standard medical care is practiced by health professionals who hold an M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degree. It is also practiced by other health professionals, such as physical therapists, physician assistants, psychologists, and registered nurses. Standard medicine may also be called biomedicine or allopathic, Western, mainstream, orthodox, or regular medicine. Some standard medical care practitioners are also practitioners of CAM.

Complementary medicine is used along with standard medical treatment but is not considered by itself to be standard treatment. One example is using acupuncture to help lessen some side effects of cancer treatment.

Alternative medicine is used instead of standard medical treatment. One example is using a special diet to treat cancer instead of cancer drugs that are prescribed by an oncologist.

NCI provides evidence-based Physician Data Query (PDQ) information for many CAM therapies in versions for both the patient and health professional.

Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Scientists learn about CAM therapies every day, but there is still more to learn. Some of the therapies listed below still need more research to prove that they can be helpful. If you have cancer, you should discuss your thoughts about using CAM with your health care provider before using the therapies listed below. 

People may use the term "natural," "holistic," "home remedy," or "Eastern Medicine" to refer to CAM. However, experts often use five categories to describe it. These are listed below with examples for each. 

Mind–Body Therapies

These combine mental focus, breathing, and body movements to help relax the body and mind. 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 a person concentrates on a certain feeling, idea, or suggestion to aid in healing.
  • Yoga: Systems of stretches and poses, with special attention given to breathing.
  • Tai Chi: Involves slow, gentle movements with a focus on the breath and concentration.
  • Imagery: Imagining scenes, pictures, or experiences to help the body heal.
  • Creative outlets: Interests such as art, music, or dance.

Biologically Based Practices

This type of CAM uses things found in nature. Some examples are:

Manipulative and Body-Based Practices

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

  • Massage: The soft tissues of the body are kneaded, rubbed, tapped, and stroked.
  • Chiropractic therapy: A type of manipulation of the spine, joints, and skeletal system.
  • Reflexology: Using pressure points in the hands or feet to affect other parts of the body.

Biofield Therapy

Biofield therapy, sometimes called 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:

  • Reiki: Balancing energy either from a distance or by placing hands on or near the patient
  • Therapeutic touch: 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: A system from India in which the goal is to cleanse the body and restore balance to the body, mind, and spirit.
  • Traditional Chinese medicine: Based on the belief that health is a balance in the body of two forces called yin and yang.
    • Acupuncture is a common practice in Chinese medicine that involves stimulating certain points on the body to promote health, or to lessen disease symptoms and treatment side effects.
  • Homeopathy: Uses very small doses of substances to trigger the body to heal itself.
  • Naturopathic medicine: Uses various methods that help the body naturally heal itself. An example would be herbal treatments.

The Safety of CAM

Some CAM therapies have undergone careful evaluation and have been found to be generally safe and effective. These include acupuncture, yoga, and meditation to name a few. However, there are others that do not work, may be harmful, or could interact negatively with your medicines.

Natural Does Not Mean Safe

CAM therapies include a wide variety of botanicals and nutritional products, such as herbal and dietary supplements, and vitamins. These products do not have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before being sold to the public. Also, a prescription isn't needed to buy them. Therefore, it's up to you to decide what's best for you. Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Herbal supplements may be harmful when taken by themselves, with other substances, or in large doses. For example, some studies have shown that kava kava, an herb that has been used to help with stress and anxiety, may cause liver damage. And St. John, which some people use for depression, may cause certain cancer drugs to not work as well as they should.
  • Tell your doctor if you're taking any dietary supplements, even vitamins, no matter how safe you think they are. This is very important. Even though there may be ads or claims that something has been used for years, they do not prove that it's safe or effective. This is even more true when combined with your medicines.
  • Talk with your doctor about what you should be eating. It's common for people with cancer to have questions about different foods to eat during treatment. Yet it's important to know there isn't just one food or special diet that has proved to control cancer. 

It's always important for you to have a healthy diet, but especially now. Do the best you can to have a well-rounded approach, eating a variety of foods that are good for you. For advice about eating during and after cancer treatment, see the NCI booklet, Eating Hints.

Talk with Your Doctor Before You Use CAM

Cancer patients who want to use CAM should talk with their doctor or nurse. This is important because things that seem safe could be harmful or even interfere with your cancer treatment. It's also a good idea to learn if the therapy you're thinking about has been proven to do what it claims to do. Questions to ask may be:

What types of CAM therapies might help me:

  • Reduce my stress and anxiety?
  • Feel less tired?
  • Deal with cancer symptoms and side effects, such as pain or nausea?

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Doctors want to know what concerns you have so they can give you the best possible care. Let them know that you would like to use CAM methods and want their input.

Clinical Trials to Test CAM Therapies

NCI and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) are currently sponsoring or cosponsoring clinical trials that test CAM treatments and therapies in people. Some study the effects of complementary approaches used in addition to conventional treatments, and some compare alternative therapies with conventional treatments. You can find a list of all cancer CAM clinical trials here.

Lifelines: Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Dr. Jeffrey D. White, OCCAM Director, explains the use of complementary and alternative medicine in cancer.

Patients, their families, and their health care providers can learn about CAM therapies and practitioners from the following government agencies: