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Key questions about complementary therapies

Answers to some key questions are below.

What complementary therapies are available?

The term complementary therapies covers a broad range of practices and medicines. They can be grouped into different categories and most are part of whole medical systems.

What are whole medical systems?

Whole medical systems aim to treat the whole person – mind, body and spirit – not just the disease and its symptoms. In Australia, the main whole medical systems used are Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine, homeopathy and naturopathy.

What is integrative oncology or medicine?

This is the combined use of conventional treatments and evidence-based complementary therapies. This approach has been adopted by some cancer centres.

Using complementary therapies in palliative care

Many palliative care services offer complementary therapies to patients to help improve their quality of life.

Therapies such as aromatherapy, massage, meditation and reflexology can increase a person’s sense of control, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve mood.

Health professionals involved in palliative care often support patients using complementary therapies that are safe and evidence-based.

Why do people use these therapies?

Complementary therapies are widely used by people with cancer in Australia. There are many reasons why people with cancer use complementary therapies, including to:

  • improve quality of life
  • take a more active role in their health and recovery
  • manage the symptoms and side effects of conventional cancer treatment, such as fatigue, nausea or pain
  • strengthen the mind and body to cope with treatment
  • look for more holistic ways of treating the whole person
  • incorporate traditional or cultural practices.

Should I tell my doctor?

Yes. Discuss any therapy you are using or thinking about using with your doctors, as some may not be safe or evidence-based. This includes over-the-counter medicines, herbal supplements and vitamins that you buy from a pharmacy or health food store.

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 any medicines. Depending on the treatment you are having, some complementary therapies may cause reactions, make side effects worse or interfere with the success of your conventional cancer treatment.

Your doctors may advise you to avoid some complementary therapies while you are having cancer treatment. Your doctor may also be able to refer you to a qualified therapist who understands the role of complementary therapies in cancer care. 

Complementary therapy categories

Complementary therapies can be grouped into the following 4 categories. Some therapies fit into more than one category.

Mind–body practices

Mind–body practices are based on the belief that what we think and feel can affect our physical and mental wellbeing.

Mind–body practices may also be called psychological techniques, emotional therapies or spiritual healing.

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.

Examples – art therapy, counselling, hypnotherapy, laughter yoga, meditation, mindfulness, music therapy, relaxation, spiritual practices.

Body-based practices

Body-based practices work directly on your body. They may also be described as bodywork or touch therapies.

Some techniques are passive – therapists apply some form of touch or manual pressure to your body. Other practices require you to do a series of movements to stimulate and stretch different parts of the body.

Therapies such as acupuncture, tai chi, qi gong and yoga have a strong mind–body connection, so they may benefit both physical and emotional health.

Examples – acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage, qi gong, reflexology, tai chi, yoga.

Energy therapies

Energy therapy is based on the belief that the body has an invisible energy field, and when this energy flow is blocked or unbalanced, you can become sick. Unblocking this energy is said to help promote healing and wellbeing.

This vital energy or life force is known by different names in different whole medical systems – for example, qi in Chinese medicine and prana in  Ayurvedic medicine.

There is no scientific evidence of an energy field or that energy therapies have any benefits.

Examples – healing touch, reiki.

Therapies using herbs and plants

Herbal remedies, also known as botanical medicine, have been used in many traditional medicine systems. They are produced from all parts of a plant including the roots, leaves, berries and flowers. These may contain active ingredients that may cause chemical changes in the body.

Herbal remedies are often taken by mouth or applied to the skin to treat disease and promote health.

There is no reliable scientific evidence that herbal remedies alone can cure or treat cancer.

Examples – bush remedies, Chinese herbal medicine, flower remedies, medicinal cannabis, Western herbal medicine.

How do we know treatments work?

A clinical trial can help show whether a treatment works and is safe. In a randomised control trial, one group of people is given the new treatment and the other group is given the existing standard treatment. The results in the two groups are compared to work out which treatment is better, safer and/or more cost-effective.

If a trial proves that a treatment is better than existing options, it may become the new standard of care for patients in the future. Some clinical trials compare existing approaches to see which one is more effective.

Clinical trials for complementary therapies often test treatments on small groups of people with specific cancer types, such as breast and prostate. It can be challenging to establish whether the trial results apply to people with other types of cancer.

Personal (anecdotal) evidence is based on individual people’s experiences and observations, rather than on facts. It is not proven and is less reliable than scientific evidence from clinical trials.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Clinical Trials and Research’

Which complementary therapies work?

Cancer Council supports the use of complementary therapies that have been proven to be generally safe and effective in clinical trials or other scientific studies. Therapies such as meditation, massage and acupuncture can increase your sense of control, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve your mood.

Some evidence supporting the use of individual therapies is summarised on the ‘Individual therapies’ page. Only some of the therapies mentioned have been scientifically proven to be safe or effective to use for people with cancer. 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.

Many health claims for complementary therapies have not been proven. However, 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.

How is allied health different?

Allied health professionals, such as physiotherapists, exercise physiologists, dietitians and psychologists, offer a range of evidence-based therapies to diagnose and treat health conditions.

These therapies can offer people with cancer physical, emotional, spiritual and practical support, help reduce side effects from medical treatment,  and improve quality of life.

Many allied health practices are part of standard supportive care for cancer and allied health professionals are often members of multidisciplinary cancer teams. They have a university qualification in a recognised allied health field. They are also a member of a national professional organisation that:

  • certifies qualifications
  • sets and maintains competency standards
  • oversees continuing professional development
  • has a procedure for dealing with complaints about its members.

Your general practitioner (GP) or specialist can refer you to a range of allied health professionals who have experience working with people affected by cancer. Some allied health therapies can be claimed under Medicare if you have a referral from your GP as part of a Chronic Disease Management  Plan.

Traditional healing practices

Australia’s cultural diversity means some people may want to use traditional healing practices as part of their complementary cancer care.

For example, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use traditional bush medicines to help them get through cancer.

If you want to use bush medicine, discuss this with an Aboriginal health worker or elder.

Talk to your doctor if you would like to use traditional remedies from your culture alongside conventional treatments.

Featured resource

Understanding Complementary Therapies

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed January 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr David Joske, Clinical Haematologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and PathWest, Chairman and Founder Solaris Cancer Care Foundation, Clinical Professor of Medicine, The University of Western Australia, WA; Australasian Integrative Medicine Association (AIMA); Dr Robert Blum, Clinical Director, Cancer Services, Bendigo Health, NSW; Sally Brooks, Senior Pharmacist, Medicines Information, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Suzanne Grant, Senior Research Fellow, NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, and Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Prof Danforn Lim, Adjunct Professor and Advisory Board Member, NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, and Adjunct Professor, UTS, NSW; Christina Line, Statewide Services Senior Coordinator, Cancer Council WA; Jen McKenzie, Physiotherapist (Lymphoedema) and ESSA Accredited Exercise Physiologist, The McKenzie Clinic, QLD; Simone Noelker, Wellness Centre and Pastoral Care Manager, Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Nirzari Pandit, General Practitioner, RACGP Specific Interests Integrative Medicine Group, NSW; Georgie Pearson, Consumer; Cris Pirone, Counsellor, Cancer Council SA; Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko, Specialist General Practitioner, and UNSW Research Fellow, NSW; Kirsty Trebilcock, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA.

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