Complementary Therapies: Q&A

Who uses complementary therapies?

Complementary therapies are widely used by people with cancer in Australia.

A study conducted in 2010 showed that two out of three people with cancer used at least one form of complementary therapy during or after their cancer treatment1. Results from earlier studies range from 17.1%-52%2,3,4. The difference may be due to the types of complementary therapies included in the studies.

Studies show that women are the most common users of complementary therapies, and the longer someone has had cancer, the more likely they are to try them.

Why do people use complementary therapies?

There are many reasons why people diagnosed with cancer use complementary therapies. For many, it is important to try as many options as possible. Other reasons include:

  • wanting a healthier lifestyle
  • feeling more in control
  • helping improve the side effects of treatment
  • boosting the immune system to help fight infection
  • strengthening the body to cope with surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy
  • trying to reduce the need for invasive, painful or expensive conventional treatments
  • liking the idea of treating the whole person
  • helping with changes in sexuality (libido, self-esteem and intimate relationships)
  • enhancing quality of life (e.g. comfort and peace of mind)
  • helping with palliative care.

Which therapies work?

Cancer Council supports complementary therapies that have been proven to be safe and effective in scientific (clinical) studies. Not all therapies in this book have been proven to be clinically effective, but personal (anecdotal) evidence from people with cancer suggests they are beneficial.

In clinical trials, these therapies have been shown to be helpful:

  • meditation, relaxation – help reduce stress, anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem and quality of life
  • support groups – help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and pain, and improve quality of life
  • art and music therapy – improve quality of life, aid relaxation and expression of feelings
  • spiritual practices – help reduce stress, instil peace and improve ability to manage challenges
  • massage – rmay help reduce pain, anxiety, depression, nausea and muscle tension
  • aromatherapy – aids relaxation and reduces anxiety
  • acupuncture – reduces nausea, vomiting, and improves quality of life
  • yoga and physical activity – improve quality of life, sleep, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue
  • tai chi – relieves pain, improves flexibility and strength, and reduces stress
  • qi gong – improves quality of life and the body’s immune system
  • herbal medicine – increases energy, reduces fatigue, improves blood counts
  • nutrition – helps wounds and damaged tissue to heal better, improves the body’s immune system.

Are they safe?

Many complementary therapies are usually safe to use together with conventional cancer treatment. However, they can occasionally cause side effects in some people.

Be wary of the following:

  • The practitioner has no formal qualifications or studied at an unaccredited college or university.
  •  The practitioner is not registered with a state or national governing body or a professional association.
  •  The practitioner tells you not to have conventional treatment, or that medical treatment will stop their treatment from working. They may claim their treatment cures all cancers.
  •  The practitioner asks you not to talk to your doctors about the treatment, or won’t tell you the ingredients.
  •  The practitioner says there are clinical studies for the remedy’s effectiveness but does not show you proof.
  •  The treatment costs a lot of money or you need to pay in advance for several months supply of a remedy.
  •  You need to travel overseas to have the treatment.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reports health and medical scams. To find out more visit or

 Regulation of medicinal products

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is a federal department that regulates all medicines sold in Australia, including medicinal products containing herbs, vitamins or minerals, nutritional supplements, homoeopathic remedies and flower remedies.

Before they are sold in Australia, all therapeutic goods – whether manufactured in Australia or overseas – are assessed by the TGA. Approved goods are given a code depending on their level of risk:

  • Aust L (listed) – The product is considered low risk and has been assessed for safety and quality but not for how well it works (efficacy). Most herbal and nutritional products will have an Aust L code.
  • Aust R (registered) – The product is considered higher risk and has been assessed for safety, quality, and efficacy. The  few complementary therapies that have this code are usually manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.

The quality of products made with natural ingredients are affected by many factors – such as country of origin, extracts, soil and environment quality, time of harvest, storage, transport and manufacturing processes.

Regulation of complementary therapists

In Australia some complementary therapists are regulated by national legislation.

Chinese medicine practitioners, acupuncturists, Chinese herbal medicine dispensers – These practitioners are members of the Chinese Medicine Board of Australia, which is part of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). AHPRA is governed by the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law Act 2009 and regulates 10 National Health Practitioner Boards. This means that practitioners must be adequately qualified to practise.

Naturopaths and herbalists – These practitioners are covered by the Australian Register of Naturopaths and Herbalists. This self-governing body maintains a register that makes choosing a naturopath or a Western herbalist safer.

What should I do if something goes wrong?

If you have any side effects that you think are from a complementary treatment,  you can:

  • contact the practitioner’s professional association with a formal complaint
  • report adverse reactions directly to the Adverse Medicines Events Line on 1300 134 237.
  • call the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission on 1800 043 159 or see
More information
  • Call Cancer Council Helpline 13 11 20


1. Oh, B., Butow, P., Mullan, B., Beale, P., Pavlakis, N., Rosenthal, D., Clarke, S. (2010). The use and  perceived benefits resulting from the use of complementary and alternative medicine by cancer patients in Australia. Asia-Pacific Journal of Clinical Oncology. 6, 342-349.
2. Girgis, A., Adams, J., Sibbritt, D. (2005). The use of complementary and alternative therapies by patients with cancer. Oncology Research. 15(5),  281-289.
3. Miller, M., Boyer, M., Butow, P., Gattellari, M., Childs, A., Dunn, S. (1998). The use of unproven methods of treatment by cancer patients: Frequency, expectations and cost. Journal of Supportive Care. 6, 337-347.
4. Begbie, S., Kerestes, Z., Bell, D. (1996). Patterns of Alternative Medicine Use by Cancer Patients. Medical Journal of Australia. 165, 545-548.
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