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Why people use complementary or alternative therapies

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about why people with cancer use complementary or alternative therapies. There is information about


Who uses complementary 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, the number of people using complementary therapies 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 very 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 reliable research studies are being carried out and we are beginning to collect evidence for some types of therapy. For example, there is evidence of improved quality of life following mindfulness based stress reduction, and reduced chemotherapy related nausea in people who have acupuncture. 

Even where there is little or no evidence for some types of complementary therapy, many people with cancer say they gain a lot of benefit from using them.


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 boosting relaxation and reducing stress. They may 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 increasing evidence that certain complementary therapies can help to control some of the symptoms and side effects of cancer and treatments. For example, acupuncture can help to relieve sickness caused by some chemotherapy drugs and a sore mouth caused by treatment for head and neck cancer. 

Acupuncture can also help to relieve pain after surgery to remove lymph nodes in the neck. We have detailed information about acupuncture and its use.


Feeling more in control

When you are having conventional cancer treatment, it may sometimes 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 that complementary therapies allow them to take a more active role in their treatment and recovery in partnership with their therapist. You decide which therapy to use and how often you use it. Complementary therapies may also help people to feel more in control of their feelings and emotions.

One patient who used complementary therapies 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 use complementary therapies because they like the idea that they seem non toxic and natural. Some complementary therapies can help with specific symptoms or side effects. But we don't know very much about how some therapies might interact with conventional cancer treatments, such as cancer drugs or radiotherapy. 

Some types of complementary or alternative medicine, such as particular herbal remedies, may cause increased side effects. Some types may make the conventional treatment work less well. So it is very important to talk to your medical team or specialist nurse about any therapies you want to take.


Comfort from touch, talk and time

Another reason people may use complementary therapies is because they get a lot of comfort and satisfaction from the touch, talk and time that a complementary therapist usually offers.

A skilled and caring aromatherapist, for example, has the time to make you feel cared for and so may help improve your quality of life. So a good complementary therapist can often play a very supportive role during cancer treatment and recovery.


Staying positive

Having a positive outlook is an important part of coping with cancer for most people. Even if your doctor suggests that your cancer might be difficult to cure, of course you will still want and hope for a cure. This is normal and often a very important part of coping with having cancer. Some people use complementary therapies as a way of helping themselves 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 we don't know if this can help the body to control cancer. Some clinical trials are looking at how certain complementary therapies might affect your immune system.


Looking for a cure

Some people may believe that specific alternative therapies may help control or cure their cancer if they are used instead of conventional cancer treatment. And there are people who promote therapies in this way. 

Using an alternative cancer treatment can become more important to people with advanced cancer if their conventional treatment is no longer controlling the cancer. Understandably they may feel very anxious and desperate and hope that alternative therapies may save their life or help them to live longer. 

There is no scientific evidence to prove that any type of alternative therapy can help to control or cure cancer. Some alternative therapies may be unsafe and could cause harmful side effects. To find out more you can read our detailed information about the safety of using complementary and alternative therapies.

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Updated: 3 October 2014