Complementary therapies: making treatment decisions

Can I help myself or should I see a professional?

One of the reasons people with cancer use complementary therapies is because they can take an active role in their health.

Some ways people can help themselves, without the guidance of a professional, include learning some gentle massage or acupressure techniques, adding essential oils to their bath, doing meditation, or drinking some herbal tea.

Be careful about buying complementary therapies online. Many internet sites offer a range of treatments, usually at very cheap prices. However, the safety and quality regulations that apply to commercial products sold in Australia do not cover products purchased from overseas.

Some people may consider self-prescribing some herbs or nutritional supplements. Although self-prescribing may seem cheaper, it may not give you the best and safest results or be as effective as it could be. Benefits of seeing a professional complementary therapist are that they:

  • have an objective view of your case
  • should have had experience treating a range of conditions and may have treated other people with cancer
  • should be willing to liaise with your clinicians, if necessary
  • can prepare a tailor-made treatment plan and dispense remedies based on your individual needs, if qualified to do so
  • can help you avoid health risks of using complementary therapies while receiving conventional cancer treatment.

Finding a complementary therapist

Contacting an association is a good starting point for finding a therapist.

Many people find good therapists through recommendations from family or friends or through a support group. Some registered health professionals (e.g. doctors and nurses) are also qualified in a complementary therapy such as nutritional and herbal medicine, hypnotherapy, counselling, acupuncture or massage.


  • Ask if the therapist is experienced or comfortable working with a person who has cancer.
  • Confirm the therapist – particularly a herbalist or naturopath – is willing to communicate  with your doctors about your treatment.
  • Check whether the therapist would like to see your test results, a list of your medications or your conventional treatment plan. This information reduces the risk of them dispensing remedies or other treatments that might interact with your conventional medicines or treatments.
  • Ask for a written treatment plan outlining the remedies and dietary or lifestyle adjustments recommended.
  • Keep a record of your consultations, including the treatments given and medicines or supplements you have been prescribed.
  • Write down any questions you have.
  • Take a family member or friend with you to appointments,  to offer support, take part in the discussions, take notes or simply listen.
  • See the glossary if you do not understand a word.

Keeping your health care providers in the loop

It is important you let your primary health care providers (e.g. GP, nurses, specialists) know you are considering using complementary therapies. This will help reduce the risk of adverse reactions. Studies show the most common reason people may not discuss their use of complementary therapies with their primary health care providers is fear of their disapproval.

The use of complementary therapies is growing, so many primary health care providers are better informed about them and are often supportive of their use. Some doctors and nurses have also been trained in complementary   therapies and are able to give you information about them.

However, some doctors and nurses may not support your use of complementary therapies. It is still important to discuss the topic with them, as it allows them to consider your safety and wellbeing.

For example, your surgeon, oncologist or radiotherapist may have specific concerns, such as not using certain creams or medicines, or not having acupuncture in a particular place on the body. If you are taking herbs or nutritional supplements, they may suggest you stop taking these before, during or after radiotherapy or chemotherapy treatments. To keep your doctors and nurses informed, your complementary   therapists could provide a letter outlining the type of therapy you are receiving.

It is your right to choose your treatment, whether it is conventional or complementary,  however, it is important to keep your primary health care providers in the loop.

Question checklist for complementary therapies

It is important to ask questions about the complementary therapies you are interested in so you make safe, beneficial choices. You can download and print a comprehensive list of questions about complementary therapies from the Cancer Institute NSW website. You may find this checklist helpful when thinking about the questions you want to ask your doctor and complementary therapists about your illness and treatment.

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