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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary therapies are a combination of traditional Chinese medicine and other groups of healing systems that have been practiced for hundreds of years to treat prevailing ailments and improve symptoms. The words “complementary” and “alternative” medicine are commonly used interchangeably, however they should not be confused as they are two separate models. Alternative medicine is used instead of conventional medicine, while complementary therapy refers to therapy used in conjunction with traditional or mainstream medicine. It focuses on treating the “whole” person, which encompasses the body, mind and spirit to achieve good health and well-being.

Traditional medicine used for cancer treatment often falls short in treating all the physical symptoms and emotional well-being of the patient, not to mention the numerous side effects related to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. To address this issue, complementary medicine has been increasingly practiced alongside conventional cancer care as a form of integrative medicine.

To date, there is limited evidenced-based research on the use of complementary therapy in cancer care, but support is growing. It has been used to manage symptoms and side effects related to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Managing side effects can lead to a greater quality of life for many patients. A recent study found that women with breast cancer reported reduced cancer-related fatigue after receiving treatment with acupuncture.1

Different types of therapies focus on alleviating specific symptoms which been investigated.  It is important to note that although many of the therapies are used to help control symptoms, they do not cure disease.

Some types of commonly used therapies to manage cancer related symptoms include: 2

  • Massage Therapies: Beneficial in reducing pain, fatigue, nausea, and depression.
  • Mind-Body Therapies: Relaxation therapies that can improve breathing, depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, stress, nausea, muscle tension, and headache.
  • Acupuncture: Aids in controlling hot flashes, chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, pain, neuropathy, stress, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and lack of appetite.
  • Aromatherapy: Utilizes senses to enhance wellbeing.

This is one of a series of blog posts identifying the various complementary therapies available to cancer patients undergoing treatment. Complementary therapies can be used to safely supplement mainstream medicine by relieving some of the physical and emotional symptoms and side effects related to cancer treatment.

It is important that all patients consult their oncologist or healthcare provider before starting or undergoing any complementary therapies.


1. Molassiotis A, Bardy J, Finnegan-John J, Mackereth P, Ryder DW, Filshie J, Ream E, Richardson A. Acupuncture for cancer-related fatigue in patients with breast cancer: A pragmatic randomized controlled trial. JCO. 2012;30(36): 4470-4476.

2. Cassileth BR.  (The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care.  World Scientific Publishing Co., USA, 2011.



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