Key questions

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you may consider using complementary therapies. They can be grouped into different categories and some fit into more than one category.

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. Research shows 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.


Why do people use these therapies?

There are many reasons why people diagnosed with cancer use complementary therapies. For some, it is to try to improve their quality of life. Other reasons include:

  • taking a more active part in their health
  • managing the symptoms and side effects of conventional cancer treatment, such as fatigue, nausea or pain
  • boosting the immune system to help fight infection
  • strengthening the body to cope with treatment
  • looking for a more holistic way of treating the whole person
  • managing changes in sexuality (libido, self-esteem and intimate relationships).

Complementary therapy use in palliative care

Many palliative care services offer complementary therapies to
patients to help improve their quality of life. Most commonly, these include mind–body techniques such as massage, aromatherapy, relaxation and meditation.

Health professionals involved in palliative care often support complementary therapy use.


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 therapies in this book 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 may be useful for some people. 

There is some level of evidence from clinical trials that some therapies can help manage symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment.

Evidence supporting the different therapies is included in Mind–body techniques, Body-based practices, Energy therapiesTherapies using herbs, Therapies based on diet.

Complementary therapy

(listed in alphabetical order)
Clinically proven benefits
acupuncture reduces chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting; improves quality of life
aromatherapy improves sleep and quality of life
art therapy, music therapy reduce anxiety and stress; manage fatigue; aid expression of feelings
counselling, support groups help reduce distress, anxiety and depression; improve quality of life
exercise helps manage fatigue; improves balance, coordination and quality of life
hypnotherapy reduces pain, anxiety, nausea and vomiting
massage improves quality of life; reduces anxiety, depression, pain and nausea
meditation, relaxation, mindfulness reduce stress and anxiety; improve coping and quality of life
nutrition prevents and manages malnutrition; helps heal wounds and damaged tissue 
qi gong reduces anxiety and fatigue; improves quality of life
spiritual practices helps reduce stress; instil peace; improve ability to manage challenges
tai chi reduces anxiety and stress; improves strength, flexibility and quality of life
yoga reduces anxiety and stress; improves general wellbeing 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 medicines. 

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


Are they safe?

Many complementary therapies have been evaluated and are safe and effective to use together with conventional cancer treatment and medicine. However, some complementary therapies can affect the way conventional treatments and medicines work, and even stop them from working altogether.

Sometimes people think natural products are safe, but this isn’t always true. Some products may affect how well other medicines work in your body.

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, homeopathic remedies and some aromatherapy products.

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

To be included on the ARTG, medicines will be given one of the following two codes depending on the level of risk. This must be displayed on the medicine label.

Aust R (registered) – Because these products are considered higher risk, they are evaluated by the TGA for safety, quality and how well they work. They include all prescription medicines, most over-the-counter medicines and some higher-risk complementary medicines.

Aust L (listed) – These products make low-level therapeutic claims and are reviewed for safety and quality only. They include sunscreen, vitamin and mineral supplements, and herbal medicines.

To ensure medicines are safe, it is best to buy Australian-made complementary therapies. 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, health practitioners, such as doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists and Chinese medicine practitioners, are regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). Each health profession that is part of AHPRA is also represented by a national board. AHPRA ensures that practitioners have the necessary qualifications and training to practise. See ahpra.gov.au.

There are no regulations for other complementary therapists, but several types of complementary therapists are affiliated with a professional organisation. However, membership is voluntary, which means there is no legal obligation to join. Without regulation, there is no legal requirement that a complementary therapist is qualified, trained or experienced. 

The following complementary therapists or practitioners have regulatory bodies.

Naturopaths and Western herbalists – These practitioners are not registered by AHPRA. However, most naturopaths and herbalists are registered with the Australian Register of Naturopaths and Herbalists (ARONAH). This is a self-governing body that sets minimum standards of practice for both professions. See aronah.org.

Homeopaths – These practitioners are not registered by AHPRA. However, the Australian Register of Homoeopaths (AROH) represents homeopaths who are qualified to practise in line with government standards. The AROH outlines the necessary professional standards for registered homeopaths, who must meet continuing education requirements each year. See aroh.com.au.


What should I do if something goes wrong?

If you experience any side effects that you think are from a complementary therapy, stop the treatment and talk to your practitioner about your options. These may include adjusting your treatment, stopping the treatment permanently, seeking a second opinion, or changing your care to another qualified practitioner.

If you are concerned that a 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.
  • Report adverse reactions 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. These organisations protect public health and safety by investigating and resolving complaints about health care providers. They can also prosecute serious complaints.
  • If you have a serious reaction, call 000 or go straight to your nearest hospital 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 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 2018
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