What are the different cancer treatments?

Learn how conventional medicine, complementary therapies, and alternative therapies differ:

Conventional treatments and medicines 

These can be used to control or treat cancer by slowing or stopping the growth and spread of the disease. They can also provide relief from symptoms. Conventional treatments are based on scientific evidence and clinical trials. They include surgery, radiation therapy (also known as radiotherapy) and systemic treatments, such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

Complementary therapies and medicines

These tend to focus on the whole person, not just the cancer. They are used with conventional medicine, and may help people cope better with symptoms of cancer and/or side effects caused by conventional treatments. Some have been scientifically tested and shown to work. Research into complementary therapies and medicines is growing.

Alternative therapies and medicines

These are used in place of conventional treatments and medicine. 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. Examples include coffee enemas and magnet therapy.

Integrative oncology or medicine

This is the combined use of conventional treatments and evidence-based complementary his approach has been adopted by some cancer centres.

Integrative medicine is the combined use of conventional cancer treatments and evidence-based complementary therapies.

What is the evidence behind these complementary therapies? Read more here.

“Complementary” versus “alternative”

The terms “complementary” and “alternative” are often used as though they mean the same thing. And although they are sometimes combined into one phrase – complementary and alternative therapies – they are different. Complementary therapies are used alongside conventional treatments and

medicines, usually to manage side effects. Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional treatments. Many complementary therapies are being scientifically researched for use in people with cancer, while alternative therapies are unlikely to have been tested in this way.


This information was last reviewed in April 2018
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