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Why people use complementary or alternative therapies

There are a number of reasons why people use complementary or alternative therapies.

In the UK, up to one third of people with cancer (33%) use some sort of complementary therapy at some time during their illness. For some types of cancer, such as breast cancer, this number is even higher at almost half (50%).

There is no evidence to suggest that any type of complementary therapy prevents or cures cancer. But people are interested in using complementary therapies for many reasons, including those mentioned on this page.

For some therapies there is currently very little research evidence to show that they help with certain symptoms – for example, pain or hot flushes.

But there is reliable research going on and we are starting to collect evidence for some types of therapy. For example, there is evidence of reduced chemotherapy related sickness (nausea) in people who have acupuncture.

Using therapies to help you feel better

People often use complementary therapies to help them feel better and cope with having cancer and treatment. How you feel plays a part in how you cope.

Many complementary therapies concentrate on relaxation and reducing stress. They might help to calm your emotions, relieve anxiety, and increase your general sense of health and well being.

Many doctors, cancer nurses and researchers are interested in the idea that positive emotions can improve your health.

Reducing symptoms or side effects

There is growing evidence that certain complementary therapies can help to control some symptoms of cancer and treatment side effects.

For example, acupuncture can help to relieve sickness caused by some chemotherapy drugs. Or, it can help relieve a sore mouth after having treatment for head and neck cancer.

Acupuncture can also help to relieve pain after surgery to remove lymph nodes in the neck.

Feeling more in control

Sometimes it might feel as though your doctor makes many of the decisions about your treatment. It can begin to feel like you don't have much control over what happens to you.

Many people say complementary therapy lets them take a more active role in their treatment and recovery, in partnership with their therapist.

Complementary therapies might also help people to feel more in control of their feelings and emotions.

One person with cancer who used a complementary therapy alongside chemotherapy and radiotherapy said:

"I turn up for my appointment and someone injects the drugs into me, or shines radiation beams at me. Although I know all the staff care, I sometimes go away feeling very alone and not in control of my situation. But after a massage I feel less alone and more able to cope with things."

Natural and healing therapies

Many patients like the idea that complementary therapies seem natural and non toxic.

Some complementary therapies can help with specific symptoms or side effects. But we don't know much about how they might interact with conventional treatments like cancer drugs or radiotherapy.

Some types of complementary or alternative medicine might make conventional treatment work less well. And some, such as particular types of herbal remedies, might cause increased side effects.

So it is very important to talk to your doctor or nurse about any therapies you want to have.

Comfort from touch, talk and time

Some people might get a lot of comfort and satisfaction from the touch, talk and time that a complementary therapist usually offers.

A good therapist can play a supportive role during cancer treatment and recovery. For example, a skilled and caring aromatherapist can take the time to make you feel cared for. This might help improve your quality of life.

Staying positive

Having a positive outlook is an important part of coping with cancer for most people. It is normal to want and hope for a cure, even if your doctor suggests that this might be difficult.

Some people use complementary therapies as a way to feel positive and hopeful for the future.

Boosting your immune system

Some people believe that certain complementary therapies can boost their immune system and help fight their cancer.

There is evidence that feeling good and reducing stress boosts the immune system. But doctors don't know if this can help the body to control cancer.

There are clinical trials looking at how certain complementary therapies might affect the immune system.

Looking for a cure

Some people believe that using specific alternative therapies instead of conventional cancer treatment might help control or cure their cancer. There are also people who promote alternative therapies in this way.

Using alternative therapy can become more important to people with advanced cancer if their conventional treatment is no longer helping to control it. It is understandable that they feel anxious and desperate, and hope that alternative therapies might work.

But, there is no scientific evidence to prove that any type of alternative therapy can help to control or cure cancer. Some alternative therapies might be unsafe and can cause harmful side effects.

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

  • Patterns of complementary and alternative medicine use among patients undergoing cancer treatment
    J Corner and others
    European Journal of Cancer Care, 2009. Volume 18, Issue 5

  • 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

  • Complementary and alternative medicine use in breast cancer patients in Europe
    A Molassiotis and others
    Supportive Care in Cancer, 2006. Volume 14, Issue 6

  • Use of complementary therapy and alternative medicine by patients attending a head and neck oncology clinic
    M Shakeel and others
    Journal of Laryngology and otology, 2008. Volume 122, Issue 12

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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