Complementary and alternative therapies for advanced cancer

You may wonder whether there are any complementary and alternative therapies you could try. You may want help managing different symptoms and side effects, or a treatment for the cancer.

You may want to feel that you’ve tried every available option and have some control over your treatment.

Learn more about these therapies:

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies can be used in combination with conventional medicine, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Therapies include acupuncture, massage, hypnotherapy, nutrition and relaxation. These may help you cope better with side effects and feel as well as possible.

In clinical trials, some therapies have been shown to be helpful for managing the various emotional and physical effects of cancer and its treatment.

Examples include:

  • anxiety meditation, relaxation, counselling, support groups, art therapy, music therapy, massage, hypnotherapy
  • fatigue meditation, relaxation
  • pain hypnotherapy
  • stress meditation, relaxation, counselling, support groups, spiritual practices
  • nausea and vomiting acupuncture, hypnotherapy.

While some cancer treatment centres and palliative care units offer complementary therapies as part of their services (e.g. art therapy, massage or meditation), you may have to see a private practitioner. If you go to a private practitioner and have private health insurance, check if your health fund provides a rebate.

Most complementary therapies cost money, but some community centres offer group therapies, such as tai chi or yoga, for free or a small charge. Call 13 11 20 for a copy of Understanding Complementary Therapies, or download a digital copy from this page.

Let your doctor know if you plan to use any other therapies. This is important, as some therapies may not be appropriate, depending on your conventional treatment or what is happening in your body. For example, some herbs and nutritional supplements may interact with your medication, resulting in harmful side effects.

Alternative therapies

Alternative therapies are commonly defined as those treatments used instead of conventional medicine. Many alternative therapies claim to stop cancer growing and to cure the disease, but they are not scientifically tested or proven to be effective.

When cancer has spread and treatment options are limited, some people consider alternative therapies. However, alternative therapies can be harmful – for example, taking high-dose vitamins can have side effects, and eliminating food groups could mean that your diet no longer provides all the nutrients you need. Some therapies may also be costly.

Be wary if any treatment:

  • claims to cure all cancers
  • requires you to travel overseas
  • claims the medical/pharmaceutical industry wants to stop its use
  • claims to have positive results with few or no side effects.

Information on alternative therapies may be misleading. It can come from many sources, such as the internet. Friends and family may also tell you about alternative treatments. Look for information from reliable sources such as Cancer Council or government websites, ask questions, and check a practitioner’s qualifications.

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
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