Complementary therapies

Conventional cancer treatments have been through a research process to see whether they work and are safe. This is known as evidence-based medicine.

While some complementary therapies are supported by strong evidence, others are not. As their use increases, many are now being scientifically tested to see whether they are safe for people with cancer and whether they reduce or improve specific symptoms to help people during and after conventional treatments.

Many alternative therapies and medicines have not been scientifically tested. Others have been tested and shown not to work and to be harmful to people with cancer.

What are complementary therapies?

Complementary therapies is a broad term that covers a range of different therapies. They can be grouped into different categories and some fit into more than one category. Many complementary therapies are also part of the whole medical system.

Why do people use complementary therapies?

There are many reasons why people diagnosed with cancer use complementary therapies. For some, it is to try to improve their quality of life.

Other reasons include:

  • Taking a more active part in their health.
  • Managing the symptoms and side effects of conventional cancer treatment, such as fatigue, nausea or pain.
  • Boosting the immune system to help fight infection.
  • Strengthening the body to cope with treatment.
  • Looking for a more holistic way of treating the whole person.
  • Managing changes in sexuality (libido, self-esteem and intimate relationships).

Which therapies work?

Cancer Council supports the use of complementary therapies that have been proven to be safe and effective in scientific studies. There is some level of evidence from clinical trials that some therapies can help manage the side effects of cancer and its treatment.

Complementary therapies and their clinically proven benefits

  • Meditation, relaxation, mindfulness – reduce stress and anxiety; improve coping and quality of life.
  • Counselling, support groups – help reduce distress, anxiety and depression; improve quality of life.
  • Art therapy, music therapy – reduce anxiety and stress; manage fatigue; aid expression of feelings.
  • Spiritual practices – held reduce stress; instil peace; improve ability to manage challenges.
  • Massage – improve quality of life; reduce anxiety, depression, pain and nausea.
  • Aromatherapy – improve sleep and quality of life.
  • Acupuncture – reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting; improve quality of life.
  • Yoga – reduce anxiety and stress; improve general well-being and quality of life.
  • Hypnotherapy – reduce pain, anxiety, nausea and vomiting.
  • Nutrition – prevent and manage malnutrition; help heal wounds and damaged tissue.
  • Qi gong – reduce anxiety and fatigue; improve quality of life.
  • Tai chi – reduce anxiety and stress; improve quality of life.
  • Exercise – help manage fatigue, improve balance, coordination and quality of life.

Should I tell my doctor?

Yes. Discuss any therapy you may be using or are thinking about using with your doctors. It’s important to tell your doctors before you start using any complementary therapy, especially if you are having chemotherapy or radiation therapy or taking medicines. It is also important to tell your complementary therapist that you have cancer, and advise them of the conventional treatments and medicines you’re having.

For more information on complementary therapies please refer to the Understanding Complementary Therapies booklet.

Are they safe?

Many complementary therapies have been evaluated and safe to use together with conventional cancer treatment and medicine. However, some complementary therapies can affect the way conventional treatment and medicine work, and even stop them working altogether.

Sometimes people think natural products are safe, but this isn’t always true. Some products may affect how well other medicines work in your body.

Refer to the Understanding Complementary Therapies booklet for more details on the potential side effects and other considerations.

What are alternative therapies?

Alternative therapies and medicines are used in place of conventional medical treatments. Many alternative therapies have not been scientifically tested so there is no proof they stop cancer growing or spreading. Others have been tested and shown not to be effective. While side effects of alternative treatments are not always known, some are serious and can delay or stop the cancer being treated effectively. Some alternative practitioners promote their therapies and medicines as a cure for cancer and encourage people to stop using conventional cancer treatment. If this is something you are considering, discuss this with your doctor first.

Cancer Council does not recommend the use of alternative therapies as treatment for cancer.

The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our disclaimer.