On this page:BasicsComplementary TreatmentAlternative Treatment EffectivenessSide EffectsCancer Cure ScansDiet and Exercise
Youve seen the headlines about natural medicine trends, from yoga to supplements to diet and exercise fads. When it comes to cancer, you want to know what will help you safely regain your health during treatment and after. But there are loads of competing, sometimes-confusing info to sift through. What can you trust? Well, you can start with us here at HealthCentral: We went to the experts to learn all the science-based truth on complementary care for cancer.
First, lets clarify how cancer comes to be: Cancer occurs when abnormal cells anywhere in your body grow out of control, due to mutations in their DNA. Normal cells divide, age and die predictably, copying DNA as they go. Cancer cells, however, dont follow those rules. Rather than die off, they mutate, replicate, and form tumors.
Whats known as the primary site of your cancer is the spot where these cells start growing, and that organ or area determines the type of cancer you have. When cancerous cells journey through your blood or lymphatic system (the network of tissues and organs that flush out toxins, waste, and other undesirables), the areas they invade are metastatic sites.
Note that a cell can be abnormal without being cancerous (also known as malignant). It could be benign (not cancer), or precancerous or premalignant (likely to become cancer). Through screening and testing, docs can determine exactly what youre dealing with.
That depends on what kind of cancer you have, what stage its in, and other factors. Treatment can include:
Doctors often try more than one treatment, spaced out over weeks and months, as they gauge how your body responds. Your doc might even start you on multiple treatments at the same time.
Youve probably heard of complementary care. Or maybe you know it as alternative care. You know a bit of what these treatments might include (youre thinking meditation, herbs, and maybe yoga?). But did you know that while complementary and alternative care are often lumped together (as CAM, Complementary and Alternative Medicine), theyre not the same?
Complementary medicine is used in addition to conventional cancer care. It can include products, practices, and healthcare systems outside of mainstream medicine. These methods dont cure cancer, but work in conjunction with conventional cancer treatments to help in a variety of ways, including pain management and emotional support. Many complementary medicine practices can be considered evidence-based medicine (scientifically studied in randomized controlled trials, the highest level of evidence that guides cancer care).
When complementary medicine works harmoniously with conventional medicine, its an approach known as integrative medicine, or integrated care, where physicians treat you holisticallymeaning caring for you as a whole patient, taking into account all facets of your cancer experience. These can include:
When integrative medicine is administered to treat cancer, its known as integrative oncology, a patient-centered, evidence-informed field of cancer care. It may include:
Alternative medicine, in contrast, is used in place of conventional medicine. Rather than going hand-in-hand with, say surgery and chemo, alternative medicine is done instead of those evidence-based cancer treatments.
A quick note: before you try any new approach during (and after) your cancer treatment journey, make sure to discuss it with your doctor.
If youve used or are considering using complementary medicine as a cancer patient, youre not alonea national survey found that 65% of respondents whod been diagnosed with cancer had used some form of it.
Theres good reason to explore complementary care if you have cancer. It can be part of your supportive carehelping where you need it, like soothing and calming your mind and body as you go through this challenging time. Indeed, research suggests that complementary medicine can assist by:
There are easily hundreds of complementary treatments for cancer, so weve selected a small sample to discuss here. Possibilities include:
Acupuncture: Theres substantial evidence that this ancient Chinese practice of using sterile needles to stimulate different areas of the body can help manage cancer treatment-related nausea and vomiting. It may also help relieve cancer pain and other symptoms, but theres not enough evidence yet to support that.
Herbs: Ginger, for instance, has been shown to help control nausea from chemotherapy when used with conventional anti-nausea medications. Just keep in mind that any supplements you consume can change your body physiologicallynothing you ingest is without the potential for adverse effects. For instance, herbs can impact blood sugar levels and the bloods ability to clot.
Massage therapy: Sure, it feels sublime, and it turns out to have additional benefits too: research suggests that massage therapy can help relieve some cancer symptoms including:
Just be careful not to have deep tissue massage near surgery sites, tumors, or any medical devices. And always tell your therapist about your cancer diagnosis.
Meditation: Mindfulness-based meditation has been shown to improve quality of life during treatment. How? Studies of cancer patients have revealed the following happiness-boosting benefits:
Supplements: Herbal supplements for cancer could potentially help manage side effects like nausea and vomiting, pain, and fatigue, but more scientific evidence is required to make safe decisions about the use of these supplements.
Yoga: Preliminary data of this ancient mind/body practice from India suggests that those who do yoga could see improvements in these areas:
Another benefit: It might help lessen fatigue in breast cancer patients and survivors. More study into the myriad benefits of yoga is needed.
Other approaches: These include hypnosis, relaxation therapy, and biofeedback, all of which might help manage cancer symptoms and treatment side effects, based on study results.
One thing to note about all of these approaches: they might not be covered by your health insurance. According to the American Cancer Society, major insurers, including Blue Cross and Medicare, are starting to cover some complementary treatments. On the list above, acupuncture is most commonly covered. Contact your insurer to see what complementary treatments, if any, are paid for. They might be able to direct you to local providers who are covered under your plan.
When the treatments we discussed earlier (and the hundreds of others that are offered) are used in place of conventional medicine, its known as an alternative treatment. Nearly 40%, or 4 out of 10 Americans, believes that cancer can be cured by alternative treatments, a 2018 survey of cancer patients and people without cancer, found. However, while research shows that complementary medicine can play an important role in conventional cancer medicine, the same hasnt been readily found for alternative treatment.
Case in point: in 2009, the Society for Integrative Oncology (the leading international organization for healthcare professionals and researchers working in the field of complementary therapies in cancer care) published guidelines for healthcare professionals when using complementary medicine.
The org reminded healthcare professionals and patients that unproven cancer treatment methods shouldnt be used in place of conventional options because delaying cancer treatment thats evidence-based and shown to work reduces the chance of remission/cure for cancer patients.
Its important to talk with your healthcare professionals about the risks of using alternative therapies so you can make an informed decision about whats best for your health.
There are definite side effects with CAM. You might think that because something is natural, its safe. But this isnt always the case. Arsenic is natural, for instance, but you wouldnt want to start taking it in large doses.
Another example: Chemotherapy has a multitude of side effects because it destroys both cancerous cells and healthy cells. Its been cited by many as harmful because its made from chemicals. But did you know, some forms of chemo come from nature? Three drugs (Vincristine, Vinblastine, and Vinorelbine) are derived from plant alkaloids and are made from the periwinkle plant (Catharanthus Rosea). Chemo drugs called taxanes (Paclitaxel and Docetaxel) come from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree (Taxus).
Know too that just because something is sold, doesnt mean its been vetted or approved for usefor safety or qualityby the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA doesnt regulate vitamins and supplements, so the onus is on us to do our best to source safe, trustworthy products.
Its vital to tell your cancer healthcare team about every treatment and therapy youre using for your cancer, whether its receiving acupuncture for nausea, going to the chiropractor for pain, adding St. Johns Wort to your supplement regime to help manage depression, or getting a massage to feel better.
If youre reluctant to be open with your doc, youre not alone: 29% of cancer patients did not disclose their CAM practices to their providers, according to one study. Secret-keeping could be downright dangerous. Lets use these four seemingly innocuous examples to illustrate why:
Being open with your doc--both before you start a complementary treatment and while youre on it--is key to helping it complement, rather than detract, from the conventional care youre receiving.
When you have cancer, you of course want a cure (as quickly and painlessly as possible, please). But that desire can leave you vulnerable to fake claims, especially in the alternative medicine space. Both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regularly warn the public about fraudulent cancer treatments.
It can be hard to spot the signs of snake oil. Without a medical degree, how can you be wise to empty promises? Youll often see the same language used in cancer CAM scams, according to the FDA. These phrases should raise a red flag that a treatment is just too good to be true:
Heres how you can protect yourself while receiving evidence-based integrated care:
You might be wondering now: with all this talk of complementary and alternative medicine, what about food? And diet? And exercise? What role does it play in all this? Is there a cancer diet that could be a complementary treatment?
Turns out, theres a strong body of evidence that a healthy diet and regular physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of cancer. The scientific literature links nutrition to cancer prevention based on specific physiologic pathways, including reducing inflammation, regulating hormones, and preventing oxidative stress. Even after a cancer diagnosis, by making smart choices about what they put on their plate, patients can:
Food has power. To wield it, the American Institute for Cancer Research and American Cancer Society recommends you:
As for physical activity? While you should talk to your healthcare team about what kind and amount of exercise is safe during treatment, The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has issued guidelines for physical activity for cancer survivors, suggesting 150-300 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Exercise is a real magic pill, helping to:
As you can imagine, all of these benefits that come along with being active are particularly important when youre trying to put cancer behind you. Resistance training, in particular, has been proven to improve:
Exercise, like so many CAM options, can help you both feel stronger and respond to treatment better. Just as with other types of complementary treatments, youll want to talk to your doc about how to integrate it, so you can reap the maximum benefits both from your lifestyle changes and your conventional cancer treatment.
Researchers have found that a healthy diet is associated with a reduced risk of cancer. Even if you have cancer, it can help lessen the impact of side effects and improve your quality of life. Studies link nutrition to cancer prevention based on specific physiologic pathways, including reducing inflammation, regulating hormones, and preventing oxidative stress. All to say that food matters.
Heres the thing: there are therapies that can help you go into remission (the period when your signs and symptoms of cancer are reduced). And some healthcare professionals consider cancer cured if it hasnt returned after five years (also called complete remission). Treatments that achieve a complete remission/cure can include therapies that come from a natural source, like some forms of chemo, which are derived from plant alkaloids. But anyone promising a natural cure for cancer that doesnt have evidence to back up that claim is likely pedaling bunk.
As weve discussed, herbs can be excellent complementary treatment in oncology for things like nausea, but any claim of curing cancer should be tempered by evidence-based medicine results (meaning, proof to back up those claims).
The American Academy of Dermatology warns that black salve isnt as safe as you might think, stating that it has never been proven to work. An article on the AADs website cites reports of bad outcomes for people who tried to treat their cancer (including melanoma) using black salve. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against products that are touted as cures for cancer without evidence: The FDA urges consumers to steer clear of these potentially unsafe and unproven products and to always discuss cancer treatment options with their licensed health care provider.