Key questions

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you may consider using complementary therapies. People often have a number of questions about these therapies. The answers below provide some general information. Your doctor or complementary therapist can give you more details about particular therapies you are considering using.

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 treatment.

Women are the most common users of complementary therapies, particularly those with breast cancer. The longer someone has had cancer, the more likely they are to try them.

Why do people use these therapies?

There are many reasons why people diagnosed with cancer use complementary therapies. For some, 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 conventional cancer treatment
  • boosting the immune system to help fight infection
  • strengthening the body to cope with surgery, radiation therapy 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
  • helping with palliative care.

Complementary therapy use in palliative care

Complementary therapies are often used by palliative care patients to help improve their general wellbeing. Most health professionals who are involved in palliative care will be sympathetic if you choose to explore and use complementary therapies. The care team may warn against some therapies they believe are harmful, but you always have the right to choose your own treatment while also receiving the best care from health professionals.

Which therapies work?

Cancer Council supports the use of complementary therapies that have been proven to be safe and effective in scientific studies. Not all the therapies covered here have been scientifically proven to be clinically effective. Where the evidence is not available, the possible benefits and any harm they might cause should be considered by you and your health care team.

Personal (anecdotal) evidence from people with cancer and, in some cases, a long history of use in traditional medicine suggest that particular therapies are worth exploring and may be useful for some people. Evidence supporting the different therapies is included in Mind–body techniques,
Body-based practices, Therapies using herbs, Therapies based on diet and Other therapies.

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

Complementary therapy Clinically proven benefits
Meditation, relaxation reduce stress, anxiety and fatigue; improve quality of life
Counselling, support groups help reduce distress, anxiety and depression; improve quality of life
Art therapy, music therapy reduce anxiety; aid expression of feelings
Spiritual practices help reduce stress; instil peace; improve ability to manage challenges
Massage improves quality of life; reduces anxiety, depression and muscle tension
Aromatherapy aids relaxation and sleep; improves overall wellbeing
Acupuncture reduces chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting; decreases fatigue; improves quality of life
Yoga improves general wellbeing and quality of life
Hypnotherapy reduces pain, anxiety, nausea and vomiting
Naturopathic nutrition prevents and manages malnutrition; helps heal wounds and damaged tissue; improves quality of life
Qi gong improves quality of life
Tai chi improves strength, flexibility and quality of life

Should I tell my doctor?

Yes. Discuss any therapy you may be using or are thinking about using with your doctors. It’s important to tell your doctors before you start using any complementary therapy, especially if you are having chemotherapy or radiation therapy or taking medication. 

It’s also important to tell your complementary therapist that you have cancer, and advise them of the treatment you’re having.

Are they safe?

Many complementary therapies are usually safe to use together with conventional cancer treatment. However, some complementary therapies can affect the way conventional treatments work, and even stop them from working altogether. See the individual therapies information for more details on potential side effects and other considerations.

Be sure to seek a qualified complementary therapist who can provide you with an expert opinion and ongoing support, and is happy to work with you and your health care team.

Regulation of medicinal products

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is a federal government department that regulates all medicines sold in Australia, including complementary medicines. This includes herbs, vitamins, minerals, nutritional supplements, homoeopathic remedies and some aromatherapy products.

The regulation of complementary medicines helps to protect the public by ensuring that therapeutic goods are manufactured according to Good Manufacturing Practice and that any adverse reactions can be investigated.

Before they are supplied in Australia, all therapeutic goods – whether manufactured in Australia or overseas – must be included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). Australia has a two-tiered system for regulating all medicinal products, including prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines. Medicines will be given one of the following two codes:

  • Aust L (listed) – These products can make only low-level therapeutic claims and can include only ingredients approved by the TGA as safe. They are not evaluated by the TGA prior to entry on the ARTG, but they may be reviewed by the TGA once they are on the ARTG.
  • Aust R (registered) – Because these products are considered higher risk, they are fully evaluated by the TGA for safety, quality and efficacy before being included on the ARTG. All prescription medicines, most over-the-counter medicines and some higher-risk complementary medicines are registered.

There is no assurance for consumers that complementary medicines that are not included on the ARTG have been manufactured to Australian standards of quality and safety.

For more information on the safety, labelling and regulation of medicines, visit the Australian government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration website.

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 also regulates other health practitioners, such as doctors, nurses and pharmacists. AHPRA ensures that practitioners are adequately qualified to practise.

Naturopaths and Western herbalists – These practitioners are not registered by AHPRA. However, most naturopaths and herbalists are members of the Australian Register of Naturopaths and Herbalists. This is a self-governing body that maintains a certain standard of practice for both professions.

Homoeopaths – These practitioners are not registered by AHPRA. However, the Australian Register Of Homoeopaths (AROH) is a non-government organisation that represents homoeopaths who are qualified to practise in line with standards set by the government. The AROH outlines certain professional standards for registered homoeopaths, who must meet continuing education requirements each year.

What should I do if something goes wrong?

If you experience any side effects that you think are from a complementary treatment, stop the treatment and talk to your practitioner. They will work out how to change your treatment to reduce the chance of the problem recurring.

If this does not resolve the issue, you may decide to stop the treatment permanently, consider seeking a second opinion, or transfer your care to another qualified practitioner. If you are concerned that the practitioner has been negligent, incompetent or unethical, consider the following options:

  • If the practitioner belongs to a professional association, contact the association with a formal complaint. They may be able to investigate and decide what action to take.
  • Report adverse reactions directly to NPS MedicineWise’s Adverse Medicine Events Line on 1300 134 237. You can also tell your doctor, who will report it to the TGA.
  • Contact the health care complaints commission in your state or territory. This organisation protects public health and safety by investigating and resolving complaints about health care providers. It can also prosecute serious complaints.
  • If you have a serious reaction that needs immediate medical attention, call 000 or go straight to your nearest emergency department.

Making complaints about health care providers

State/territory Contact details
ACT ACT Human Rights Commission 02 6205 2222
NSW Health Care Complaints Commission 1800 043 159
NT Health and Community Services Complaints Commission 1800 004 474
QLD Office of the Health Ombudsman 133 646
SA Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner 08 8226 8666; 1800 232 007 (toll free from country SA)
TAS Health Complaints Commissioner Tasmania 1800 001 170
VIC Office of the Health Services Commissioner 1300 582 113
WA Health and Disability Services Complaints Office 08 6551 7600; 1800 813 583 (toll free from country WA)

This information was last reviewed in May 2015
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