Complementary medicine is a treatment, practice, or product that is used alongside traditional medical treatment. It is not meant to replace traditional cancer treatment, but is available to alleviate side effects or improve a patient’s sense of well-being.
Acupuncture involves inserting hair-thin, metal needles into the skin at specific points on the body. It causes little to no pain. Electrical stimulation is sometimes applied to the acupuncture needle. There have been numerous studies of acupuncture’s efficacy in reducing nausea, pain, and hot flushes, and results have been mixed.
Homeopathy and naturopathy
Naturopathy has not been studied in controlled, well-designed studies, and the risks, benefits, and efficacy have not been established. There have been several clinical studies of homeopathy, but the results were contradictory and systematic reviews (which combine the results of multiple clinical trials) have not shown homeopathy to be of proven benefit for any medical condition. In addition, patients and their families are not advised to spend large amounts of money on treatments that are not proven to be of benefit.
Mind-body techniques include practices such as hypnosis, guided imagery, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, and prayer. They may be useful before or during painful or stress-inducing medical procedures, chemotherapy, or radiation treatment to control anxiety, pain, or nausea and vomiting. Patients of any age can learn mind-body techniques.
Hypnosis is a state of altered consciousness that allows a patient to focus away from their pain, anxiety, or nausea. Patients who are hypnotized are not sleeping, but are actually in a state of heightened imagination, similar to daydreaming. An expert can hypnotize an individual, or a patient can learn self-hypnosis techniques. Hypnosis is safe and has few side effects.
It is not clear how or if hypnosis is helpful, though studies have suggested that it may be useful for controlling pain and nausea/vomiting in various settings, and may reduce vomiting that can develop before starting chemotherapy (called anticipatory emesis).
Visual or guided imagery
Visual or guided imagery is a technique that encourages the patient to relax by focusing on calming thoughts or experiences. The patient sits or lies in a comfortable position while imagining a pleasant experience such as relaxing on the beach.
Body-based therapies use movement or manipulation of one or more parts of the body.
Massage is a body-based therapy that uses therapeutic touch, which involves stroking and kneading the skin, muscle, and connective tissues. There are several types of massage therapy.
- Classic or Swedish massage is massage aimed primarily at muscles. It reduces tension and increases blood flow.
- Reflexology is massage of the hands and feet based on a system of points that correlate to other areas of the body.
- Chair massage is done while the patient sits fully clothed in a special chair that slopes forward, allowing the therapist access to the back, neck, and shoulders.
- Deep tissue massage is a form of intense tissue manipulation.
Good nutrition is important for cancer patients. None of the diets are proven to prolong life or cure cancer. In addition, some alternative cancer diet treatments are costly and potentially harmful.
The Gerson regimen requires an organic, vegetarian diet, and includes a strict schedule for ingesting juice made from fruit and vegetables. In addition, patients are given a number of vitamin supplements. No clinical study has proven this regimen’s efficacy. It is not recommended and may be expensive and harmful.
Macrobiotic diets are low-fat, vegetarian diets that include large amounts of complex carbohydrates. One report found that one-third of cancer patients who followed a macrobiotic diet lost weight, which resulted in other problems. This was likely due to several factors, including the expense or inaccessibility of some of the required foods, time spent preparing the meals, and the restrictive, sometimes unpleasant, nature of the diet. Macrobiotic diets are not recommended for persons with cancer.
Combinations of herbs (also called botanicals) are often promoted as ACTs. Herbal medicines may come in the form of a powder, liquid, or pill. Examples of herbal treatments include essiac, green tea, mistletoe, and St. John’s wort.
None of these herbals have proven to cure or improve cancer in reliable clinical studies; some can cause dangerous side effects. In addition, some herbal products can interact with traditional cancer treatments, making traditional treatments less effective.
A number of dietary supplements have been advertised. These include coenzyme Q10, hydrazine, melatonin, shark cartilage, shiitake mushroom extract. No supplement has proven reliable as either an alternative or complement to traditional cancer treatment.
Questions to consider
When evaluating an alternative or complementary treatment, consider the following questions:
- Does the treatment require patients to stop traditional medical care?
- Does it claim to cure cancer?
- Is it offered by only one individual or by an established, recognized cancer treatment facility?
- Is it a secret that only certain people can share?
- Does it require travel to another country?
- Is it based on well-controlled, scientific research?
- Is it expensive?
- Is the group or person promoting the treatment an expert in cancer treatment?
- Do the promoters attack the scientific and medical research community?