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?
- Why do people use these therapies?
- Should I tell my doctor?
- Which therapies work?
- Are they safe?
- What should I do if something goes wrong?
- Making complaints about health care providers
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.
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
Health professionals involved in palliative care often support complementary therapy use.
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 therapies
- Therapies using herbs
- Therapies based on diet.
(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
|ACT||ACT Human Rights Commission |
02 6205 2222
|NSW||Health Care Complaints Commission1800 043 159|
|NT||Health and Community Services Complaints Commission |
1800 004 474
|QLD||Office of the Health Ombudsman |
|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)
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Suzanne Grant, Senior Acupuncturist, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; A/Prof Craig Hassed, Senior Lecturer, Department of General Practice, Monash University, VIC; Mara Lidums, Consumer; Tanya McMillan, Consumer; Simone Noelker, Physiotherapist and Wellness Centre Manager, Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Byeongsang Oh, Acupuncturist, University of Sydney and Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, NSW; Sue Suchy, Consumer; Marie Veale, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Prof Anne Williams, Nursing Research Consultant, Centre for Nursing Research, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and Chair, Health Research, School of Health Professions, Murdoch University, WA.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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