Skip to content

Speak to a qualified cancer nurse

Call us on 13 11 20

Avg. connection time: 25 secs

Common questions about complementary therapies

Answers to some common questions about complementary therapies are below.

Complementary therapies is a broad term that covers a range of different therapies. They can be grouped into different categories and some fit into more than one category. Many complementary therapies are also part of whole medical systems.

Mind–body techniques include:

  • Art therapy
  • Counselling
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Laughter yoga
  • Life coaching
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Music therapy
  • Relaxation and meditation
  • Spiritual practices
  • Support groups

Body-based practices include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Exercise techniques
  • Massage
  • Qi gong
  • Reflexology
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

Energy therapies include:

  • Reiki
  • Healing touch

Therapies using herbs and plants include:

  • Western herbal medicine
  • Chinese herbal medicine
  • Cannabis
  • Flower remedies

Therapies based on diet include:

  •  Balanced diet
  • Naturopathic nutrition

Complementary therapies are widely used by people with cancer in Australia. Research shows that two out of three people with cancer used at least one form of complementary therapy during or after their cancer treatment. Women are the most common users of complementary therapies.

There are many reasons why people diagnosed with cancer use complementary therapies. For some, it is to try to improve their quality of life. Other reasons include:

  • taking a more active part in their health
  • managing the symptoms and side effects of conventional cancer treatment, such as fatigue, nausea or pain
  •  boosting the immune system to help fight infection
  • strengthening the body to cope with treatment
  • looking for a more holistic way of treating the whole person
  • managing changes in sexuality (libido, self-esteem and intimate relationships).

Complementary therapy use in palliative care

Many palliative care services offer complementary therapies to patients to help improve their quality of life. Most commonly, these include mind–body techniques such as massage, aromatherapy, relaxation and meditation. Health professionals involved in palliative care often support complementary therapy use.

Yes. Discuss any therapy you may be using or are thinking about using with your doctors. It’s important to tell your doctors before you start using any complementary therapy, especially if you are having chemotherapy or radiation therapy or taking medicines.

It’s also important to tell your complementary therapist that you have cancer, and advise them of the conventional treatments and medicines you’re having.

Cancer Council supports the use of complementary therapies that have been proven to be safe and effective in scientific studies. Not all therapies discussed on these pages have been scientifically proven to be clinically effective. Where the evidence is not available, the possible benefits and any harm they might cause should be considered by you and your health care team.

Personal (anecdotal) evidence from people with cancer – and, in some cases, a long history of use in traditional medicine – suggest that particular therapies may be useful for some people.

There is some level of evidence from clinical trials that the therapies below can help manage symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment.

Complementary therapyClinically proven benefits
acupuncturereduces chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting; improves quality of life
aromatherapyimproves sleep and quality of life
art therapy, music therapyreduce anxiety and stress; manage fatigue; aid expression of feelings
counselling, support groups help reduce distress, anxiety and depression; improve quality of life
exercisehelps manage fatigue; improves balance, coordination and quality of life
hypnotherapyreduces pain, anxiety, nausea and vomiting
massageimproves quality of life; reduces anxiety, depression, pain and nausea
meditation, relaxation, mindfulnessreduce stress and anxiety; improve coping and quality of life
nutritionprevents and manages malnutrition; helps heal wounds and damaged tissue
qi gongreduces anxiety and fatigue; improves quality of life
spiritual practiceshelp reduce stress; instil peace; improve ability to manage challenges
tai chireduces anxiety and stress; improves strength, flexibility and quality of life
yogareduces anxiety and stress; improves general wellbeing and quality of life

Many complementary therapies have been evaluated and are safe and effective to use together with conventional cancer treatment and medicine. However, some complementary therapies can affect the way conventional treatments and medicines work, and even stop them from working  altogether.

Sometimes people think natural products are safe, but this isn’t always true. Some products may affect how well other medicines work in your body.

Regulation of medicinal products

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is a federal government department that regulates all medicines sold in Australia, including complementary medicines. This includes herbs, vitamins, minerals, nutritional supplements, homeopathic remedies and some aromatherapy products.

The regulation of complementary medicines helps to protect the public by ensuring that therapeutic goods are made according to Good Manufacturing Practice and that any adverse reactions can be investigated.

All therapeutic goods supplied in Australia – whether made in Australia or overseas – must be included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG)

To be included on the ARTG, medicines will be given one of the following two codes depending on the level of risk. This must be displayed on the medicine label.

Aust R (registered) – Because these products are considered higher risk, they are evaluated by the TGA for safety, quality and how well they work. They include all prescription medicines, most over-the-counter medicines and some higher-risk complementary medicines.

Aust L (listed) – These products make low-level therapeutic claims and are reviewed for safety and quality only. They include sunscreen, vitamin and mineral supplements, and herbal medicines.

To ensure medicines are safe, it is best to buy Australian-made complementary medicines. For more information on the safety, labelling and regulation of medicines, visit tga.gov.au.

Regulation of complementary therapists

In Australia, health practitioners, such as doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists and Chinese medicine practitioners, are regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). Each health profession that is part of AHPRA is also represented by a national board. AHPRA ensures that practitioners have the necessary qualifications and training to practise.

There are no regulations for other complementary therapists, but several types of complementary therapists are affiliated with a professional organisation. However, membership is voluntary, which means there is no legal obligation to join. Without regulation, there is no legal requirement that a complementary therapist is qualified, trained or experienced.

The following complementary therapists or practitioners have regulatory bodies.

Naturopaths and Western herbalists – These practitioners are not registered by AHPRA. However, most naturopaths and herbalists are registered with the Australian Register of Naturopaths and Herbalists (ARONAH). This is a self-governing body that sets minimum standards of practice for both professions.

Homeopaths – These practitioners are not registered by AHPRA. However, the Australian Register of Homoeopaths (AROH) represents homeopaths who are qualified to practise in line with government standards. The AROH outlines the necessary professional standards for registered homeopaths, who must meet continuing education requirements each year.

If you experience any side effects that you think are from a complementary therapy, stop the treatment and talk to your practitioner about your options. These may include adjusting your treatment, stopping the treatment permanently, seeking a second opinion, or changing your care to another qualified practitioner.

If you are concerned that a practitioner has been negligent, incompetent or unethical, consider the following options:

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed April 2018 by the following expert content reviewers: Suzanne Grant, Senior Acupuncturist, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; A/Prof Craig Hassed, Senior Lecturer, Department of General Practice, Monash University, VIC; Mara Lidums, Consumer; Tanya McMillan, Consumer; Simone Noelker, Physiotherapist and Wellness Centre Manager, Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Byeongsang Oh, Acupuncturist, University of Sydney and Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, NSW; Sue Suchy, Consumer; Marie Veale, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Prof Anne Williams, Nursing Research Consultant, Centre for Nursing Research, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and Chair, Health Research, School of Health Professions, Murdoch University, WA.