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The difference between complementary and alternative therapies (CAMs)

There is an important difference between a complementary therapy and an alternative therapy.

The phrases complementary therapy and alternative therapy are often used as if they mean the same thing. They may also be combined into one phrase – complementary and alternative therapies (CAMs).

It's not always easy to decide whether something is a complementary or an alternative therapy. But there is an important difference.

A complementary therapy means you can use it alongside your conventional medical treatment. It may help you to feel better and cope better with your cancer and treatment.

An alternative therapy is generally used instead of conventional medical treatment.

All conventional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, have to go through rigorous testing by law in order to prove that they work. Most alternative therapies have not been through such testing and there is no scientific evidence that they work. Some types of alternative therapy may not be completely safe and could cause harmful side effects.

Using complementary or alternative therapies

It is very important to talk to your cancer doctor, GP, or specialist nurse if you're considering using any complementary or alternative therapies. They can advise you on the safety of different types of therapy.

Some treatments may interact. So it's also very important to let your complementary or alternative therapist know about your conventional cancer treatment.

What complementary therapies are

Complementary therapies are used alongside conventional medical treatments prescribed by your doctor. They can help people with cancer to feel better and may improve your quality of life. They may also help you to cope better with symptoms caused by the cancer or side effects caused by cancer treatment.

A good complementary therapist won't claim that the therapy will cure your cancer. They will always encourage you to discuss any therapies with your cancer doctor or GP.

Complementary therapies are available from many different types of people and organisations.

There are many different types of complementary therapy, including:

  • aromatherapy
  • acupuncture
  • herbal medicine
  • massage therapy
  • visualisation
  • yoga

Many health professionals are supportive of people with cancer using complementary therapies. They can see that the therapies help people to cope better with the cancer and its treatment. But some health professionals have been reluctant for their patients to use such therapies. This is because many therapies have not been scientifically tested in the same way as conventional treatments.

Some research trials have been carried out to see how well complementary therapies work for people with cancer. Some trials are still in progress. But doctors need more studies to help them develop their knowledge about the best way to use complementary therapies.

What alternative therapies are

Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medical treatment. People with cancer have various reasons for wanting to try alternative therapies.

Some people may choose to use an alternative therapy instead of starting conventional cancer treatment. Some people might stop conventional cancer treatment and switch to an alternative therapy.

Some alternative therapists may claim to be able to cure your cancer with their treatments, even if conventional medical treatments haven’t been able to do so. Or a therapist might say that conventional cancer treatments are harmful. A trustworthy therapist with a good reputation won't claim this.

There is no scientific or medical evidence to show that alternative therapies can cure cancer. Some alternative therapies are unsafe and can cause harmful side effects. Or they may interact with your conventional medical treatment. This could increase the risk of harmful side effects or may stop the conventional treatment working so well. Giving up your conventional cancer treatment could reduce your chance of curing or controlling your cancer.

Some alternative therapies are very cleverly promoted so that people reading about them think that they work very well. But the claims are not supported by scientific evidence and they may unfortunately give some people false hope.

Examples of alternative cancer therapies include:

  • laetrile
  • shark cartilage
  • Gerson therapy

Other terms used to describe CAM therapies

There are several different terms commonly used to describe complementary or alternative therapies. If you're not familiar with them, it can be confusing. You may see therapies described as:

This generally means treatments that aren’t normally used by doctors to treat cancer. In other words, any treatment that is not thought of as part of conventional medicine.

Health professionals working in cancer care are becoming more aware of the differences between complementary therapies and alternative therapies. And they know how important it is to make a distinction between the two terms. Now most doctors and nurses describe therapies as either complementary or alternative, rather than unconventional.

CAM is a term which covers both complementary and alternative medical therapies.

These terms are generally used to describe the use of conventional medicine and complementary therapies together. The terms are commonly used in the USA but are becoming more widely used in the UK.

In cancer care, integrated medicine usually includes making sure that you have access to all of the following:

  • conventional medical treatments
  • different types of complementary therapies such as massage, reflexology, relaxation, herbal medicine and acupuncture
  • counselling services and support groups
  • up to date information about your cancer and its treatment

Health professionals usually use the term traditional medicine to mean a therapy or health practice that has developed over centuries within a particular culture. It's usually formed around a particular belief system.

This term can be confusing because in the western part of the world conventional medicine could be considered to be a traditional medicine. But doctors don't usually use the term traditional medicine in this way.

They usually mean it to refer to therapies or treatments that developed in the eastern part of the world such as:

  • Ayurvedic medicine
  • traditional Chinese Medicine
Last reviewed: 
24 Oct 2014
  • Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine (3rd edition)
    D Doyle, G Hanks, N Cherny and K Calman
    Oxford University Press, 2005

  • The use of complementary therapy by men with prostate cancer in the UK
    S Wilkinson and others
    European Journal of Cancer Care, 2008. Volume 17, Issue 5

  • Use of complementary and alternative medicine in cancer patients: a European survey
    A Molassiotis and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2005. Volume 16, Issue 4

  • Potential health risks of complementary alternative medicines in cancer patients
    U Werneke and others
    British Journal of Cancer, 2004. Volume 90, Issue 2
     

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