This section has been written to explain the complementary therapies most often used by people with cancer. We hope that it will provide you with a balanced view of what is available so that, if you do want to try a complementary therapy, you will have a realistic idea of what it will involve and what it might do for you. Where the views of doctors and alternative practitioners differ, we will discuss and contrast these views so that you can make up your own mind.

  • Different therapies
  • How do doctors view these therapies?
  • Should I seek complementary or alternative therapy if I have been told I have cancer?
  • Choosing a complementary therapist

Different therapies

Many philosophies of health have developed throughout the world, resulting in different attitudes towards illness and its treatment. In this country most treatments are generally based on Western medicine, which uses a scientific model to prove the benefits of a particular treatment. Some complementary therapies have their roots in Eastern traditions.

You may hear about the following varieties of treatments or therapies. It is important to know the differences between them and what they are each generally understood to mean.

  • Conventional therapies
    Conventional therapies are the treatments which doctors use most often to treat people with cancer. These consist of surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone treatment. All these treatments have usually been tested in clinical trials and through long experience with patients
  • Complementary therapies
    Complementary therapies are generally viewed as treatments which are given alongside the conventional cancer treatments. Some complementary therapies may be available through the NHS.
  •  Alternative therapies
    Alternative therapies are usually viewed as treatments which are intended to be used instead of conventional treatments.

How do doctors view these therapies?

Some treatments, included in alternative therapies have caused a conflict of views between doctors and alternative therapists. In general, doctors do not believe that there is valid scientific evidence available that these alternative treatments can cure cancer or slow its growth. They are concerned that certain therapies may give patients false hope and occasionally may even be harmful. Doctors also worry that patients may turn away from conventional treatments that could help them. People with cancer can be very vulnerable and there have been cases when people have been misled by promises of a miracle cure. However, no reputable alternative therapist would claim to be able to cure cancer.

Certain complementary therapies, such as counselling, are now recognised by doctors for the positive effects they can have on patients’ wellbeing. In many cancer centres counselling is part of conventional treatment for some patients. Other complementary therapies such as relaxation and massage, while not part of conventional treatment, are accepted by doctors because they can help people feel better and cope better with their illness. These too are available in many cancer centres.

The main reason why doctors have been reluctant to accept alternative and some complementary therapies is that most of these treatments have never been scientifically studied or validated. Studies of some complementary therapies such as certain types of psychotherapy, relaxation and hypnotherapy have shown an improvement in patients’ quality of life and treatment side effects. Several studies to evaluate other complementary therapies, such as aromatherapy, are now in progress and will help to determine whether there are real benefits.

Should I seek complementary or alternative therapy if I have been told I have cancer?

It is important not to miss out on the benefits of conventional methods of cancer treatment, which have been scientifically proven. Complementary therapies can offer additional support and help improve your wellbeing. If you are considering using complementary or alternative therapies talk to your doctor for advice and support. Doctors are generally supportive of patients using any complementary therapies which help them cope better with their illness, but may advise caution about using certain alternative therapies.

Sometimes people who seek certain alternative therapies instead of conventional treatments may do so because they are confused, lack information, or feel they haven’t been given enough time to ask questions or talk about their concerns. This sometimes leads to misunderstandings about their treatment, or they may feel there is nothing more their doctor can do for them.

Before making any decisions on these therapies, be sure you have all the information you need from your doctor. Take a friend or relative with you for support and write the questions that matter most to you beforehand. For many people, the more information and support that is available from the health professionals looking after them, as well as from organisations such as CancerBACUP, the less likely it is they will seek help from alternative practitioners.

Choosing a complementary therapist

If you are considering using complementary therapies, the following suggestions may help you:

  • Always use a qualified therapist who belongs to a professional body. The organisations on pages 35-8 can give you names of registered therapists and advice on what to look for.
  • Check the cost of treatment beforehand to make sure you are being fairly charged. The organisations at the back of the booklet should be able to give you an idea of what is usual.
  • Talk it over with your doctor or nurse and ask for their advice, especially if you are going to have a therapy which involves taking pills or medicines.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse if there are complementary therapies available at your treatment hospital, or through your GP’s practice, or if they can recommend any therapies or practitioners.
  • Choose the complementary therapy that suits your individual needs. If you are not sure and would like to know what other patients have found helpful, contact a patient support group. Support groups often offer complementary therapies.
  • Don’t be misled by promises of cures. No reputable therapist would claim to be able to cure cancer.

CancerBACUP’s Cancer Support Service can also give you advice on how to find a suitable therapist and provide information on different complementary and alternative therapies as well as support groups in your area.

Cancer and complementary therapies

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