Understanding Complementary Therapies
Speak to a qualified cancer nurse
Call us on 13 11 20
Avg. connection time: 25 secs
Understanding Complementary Therapies
Mind–body techniques are based on the belief that what we think and feel can affect our physical and mental wellbeing. When our emotions or mental state are under pressure, our physical body can be affected. Similarly, physical symptoms can have a negative impact on our mood and mental wellbeing. Mind–body techniques may also be called psychological techniques, emotional therapies or spiritual healing.
Examples of mind–body techniques include art therapy, counselling, hypnotherapy, laughter yoga, life coaching, mindfulness meditation, music therapy, relaxation, spiritual practices, and support groups. Some techniques, such as support groups and counselling, have now become part of standard cancer care. Spiritual practices are included because of the important part they play in many people’s lives and their value in providing emotional support.
Many complementary therapies focus on the mind–body connection in different ways. Acupuncture, tai chi, qi gong, yoga and massage can help with both emotional and physical problems. However, as these techniques are first directed at the physical body (e.g. moving the limbs into a certain pose) see ‘Body-based practices’ for more information.
What are the benefits?
Scientific studies suggest that mind–body techniques can benefit people who have cancer by reducing the symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment. These include pain, anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, fear and difficulty sleeping, which can all affect mood and overall wellbeing.
What are the side effects?
Sometimes people feel overwhelmed by the emotions they experience during or after a session. This usually settles soon afterwards. If not, contact your therapist for further support.
Learn more about mind-body techniques below.
What it is: A way to express feelings using visual art.
Why use it: Participants work through issues that come up while creating art. It can also help with solving problems, improving mood and reducing stress.
What to expect: Art therapy may be done individually or in a group. You don’t need to be good at art to benefit or participate – the emphasis is on the process of producing artwork, not on the result. You can create any type of art: drawing, painting, collage, sculpture or digital work. You will discuss the work with the therapist to encourage an understanding of your emotions and concerns.
Evidence: Clinical studies have shown that art therapy helps manage symptoms of fatigue. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it improves coping skills, emotional wellbeing and quality of life.
What it is: Through discussions with a counsellor or psychologist, you can identify both positive and troubling aspects in your life. You can focus on your goals, your relationships or particular challenges you are facing. Counselling allows you to explore ways of resolving negative thoughts and feelings that impact on your health and day-to-day life.
Why use it: Counselling allows you to identify, understand and express your emotions, motivations, life choices and behaviours in a safe, objective and confidential environment. It can help with self-esteem, communication and relationships.
What to expect: Consultations are usually face to face, but if you live in a remote area or require crisis counselling, you may be able to talk with a counsellor over the phone or online.
Evidence: There is long-established evidence of the benefits of counselling. However, it is important that you find a suitably qualified counsellor you feel comfortable talking with.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)
CBT is a common type of talk therapy used by psychologists to help people identify unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, and change how they respond to them. It can also be used to manage distress and pain. CBT can teach you how to calm your body and mind, focus your thinking and improve your outlook.
If you’re interested in counselling, meditation and relaxation, you can seek help from a variety of health professionals and services.
Counsellors can help clients come up with strategies for managing their concerns.
Psychologists guide people through issues with how they think, feel and learn. They cannot prescribe medicines.
Psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who have specialised in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness. They can prescribe medicines to help a range of mental and emotional conditions.
For a referral to these practitioners, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or ask your GP for suggestions, as you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate for some of these services. You can also look for a practitioner in your area on the Australian Psychological Society’s website.
Some hospitals, cancer support groups and community centres offer relaxation and meditation groups. There are also many self-help CDs, DVDs and smartphone apps that will guide you through the different techniques. Cancer Council produces relaxation and meditation CDs. Stream or call 13 11 20 for free copies.
For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
What it is: Deep relaxation that is used to help people become more aware of their inner thoughts.
Why use it: Hypnotherapy can improve mental wellbeing and quality of life. It can help to overcome mental blocks that prevent people dealing with issues such as anxiety, fear, low self-esteem, pain, insomnia and unwanted habits such as smoking.
What to expect: Your therapist will take a case history and then lead you into a deeply relaxed state, known as an altered state of consciousness. Being in a relaxed state allows your subconscious to focus on your treatment goals, which then become more achievable for your conscious mind.
Evidence: Hypnotherapy has been clinically tested with good results for helping people cope with pain, anxiety, nausea and vomiting related to cancer treatment.
What it is: Laughter yoga, or laughter therapy, combines laughter-based activities, clapping and breathing into an exercise routine to encourage overall health and wellbeing.
Why use it: The natural process of laughter is used to relieve physical and emotional stress. It can help lower blood pressure, reduce pain and boost the immune system.
What to expect: In a group setting, you’ll be taken through a number of laughter exercises. These are not based on humour or jokes, but on laughter as a physical exercise.
Evidence: Research shows laughter has a positive impact on our physical and mental wellbeing and can stimulate the release of endorphins, the feel-good hormones.
What it is: Life coaching is a type of counselling in which a coach works with a client to set goals and work out ways to change their life to achieve them.
Why use it: Life coaching allows people to make positive changes to their future personal, spiritual, physical and professional lives.
What to expect: Your life coach will help you to clarify your thoughts about what you want in life, and to reassess any beliefs or values that may have prevented you from experiencing fulfilment in the past. Sessions can be face to face, over the phone or online.
Evidence: There is limited clinical evidence about the benefits of life coaching. However, one small study has shown that it may help people cope better with life after cancer treatment.
What it is: Mindfulness meditation means paying attention to the present moment by focusing on the breath and observing each rise and fall. There are several different types. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a 6–8 week course designed to help you cope better and be at ease in your life.
Why use it: People practise mindfulness to change the way they think about experiences.
What to expect: Lying or sitting in a comfortable position, a counsellor or psychologist will lead you through a series of exercises that focus on breath work and calming the mind.
Evidence: There is good evidence to show that MBSR lowers the levels of stress hormones in your body, which can assist in healing, and improves immune function. Studies on mindfulness meditation show it helps improve the quality of life of people with cancer, increases coping, and can reduce pain, anxiety, depression and nausea.
What it is: The use of music to improve health and wellbeing. A music therapist helps people engage with different aspects of music.
Why use it: Music therapy can help people express themselves, feel more in control, focus on healing, feel less anxious, and simply enjoy themselves in the moment.
What to expect: You don’t need to be musical to participate or benefit. The structure of the session will depend on the needs of the participants. You may play instruments, sing, or write lyrics, or you may simply listen to music and discuss how it affects you.
Evidence: Some studies in people with cancer have shown that music therapy can improve anxiety, depression, pain and fatigue.
What it is: Relaxation uses slow breathing and muscle-loosening exercises to physically and mentally calm the body. Meditation focuses your attention on the senses of the body, such as breathing. It is an important part of ancient Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. There are different types of relaxation and meditation techniques. Guided imagery or visualisation use sound and vision to encourage your imagination to create pleasant thoughts.
Why use it: Relaxation and meditation may help to release muscle tension and reduce anxiety and depression.
What to expect: Serene music may be played to create a peaceful environment. A counsellor will guide you through exercises and then, after a period of relaxation, you will usually be prompted to stay awake to enjoy your relaxed state of mind.
Evidence: Clinical studies have shown that people being treated for cancer who practise relaxation have lower levels of anxiety, stress, pain and depression.
What they are: Spirituality is a very individual concept. For some, it may mean being part of an organised religion such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism. For others, spirituality may reflect their own individual beliefs about the universe and their place in it, or a search for meaning and purpose in their lives.
Why use them: Often when people are diagnosed with cancer, the spiritual aspect of their lives becomes more important. People may find comfort in prayer, meditation or quiet contemplation. Receiving care from a spiritual care practitioner, who may also be called a pastoral carer or chaplain, can often help people, even if they are not part of an organised religion.
What to expect: If you are part of a spiritual or religious community, you may benefit from:
- prayer or meditation groups
- a feeling of unity from the congregation
- healing services for the sick
- practical and spiritual support offered by members of your spiritual or religious community.
If you are not part of a formal community, you can find further information about your area of spiritual interest from support groups, friendship groups, your local library or online.
Evidence: There is growing scientific evidence of a positive link between spiritual practices and health. They have been shown to reduce stress, instil peace and improve ability to manage challenges.
What they are: Organised groups where people with cancer and their families can come together regularly to discuss shared experiences. They include face-to-face and telephone support groups, online discussion forums and peer support programs.
Why use them: Getting in touch with other people living with cancer can offer emotional support, and help people feel less alone.
What to expect: In these support settings, most people feel they can speak openly and share their experiences with others.
Evidence: There is strong evidence that cancer support groups improve quality of life. Joining a group helps reduce distress, depression and anxiety. Studies have also shown benefits for people using online health forums. However, they may not suit everyone.
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.