Skip to content

Making informed decisions

Some people consider using complementary therapies at the time of their diagnosis; others will not think about using them until later, perhaps as part of their recovery or supportive care.

Complementary therapies can be expensive and time-consuming, and they may not offer any benefits. Deciding whether to use complementary therapies and which ones to choose is a similar process to deciding on a course of conventional treatment.

It is important to ask your cancer specialist, GP and complementary therapist questions. This helps ensure you receive therapies that are suitable for your situation.

It is your decision whether you choose to use complementary therapies. Try to understand as much as possible about each complementary therapy you are considering using, including how it works, possible side effects and costs. This will help you to weigh up the options and make a well-informed decision.

Some people may feel pressure from friends and family to use untested therapies. Knowing that the advice is usually given out of concern, you may feel guilty if you don’t want to try the recommended therapy. However, it’s your right to decide what treatments to have.

Cancer Council warns against delaying or replacing conventional treatment or medicine with a complementary or alternative therapy.

Choosing a complementary therapy

Weigh up the different types of therapies

  • Think about what you expect to gain from using complementary therapies. Which therapies are suitable for treating the issue you want help with?
  • Consider possible side effects and safety issues of the different therapies you are interested in. Are there any reasons why you shouldn’t use them?
  • Consider whether you prefer to use complementary therapies with strong scientific evidence, or whether anecdotal evidence is enough for you.
  • Find out what therapies are offered at your hospital or treatment centre.
  • Ask how much the various therapies cost.

Find out more about different therapies

  • Gather information about the effectiveness of the therapy. Consider whether the evidence is accurate, up to date, and comes from a reliable source.
  • Borrow books from a library or read about therapies on trustworthy websites.
  • Ask the therapist about the quality of the product and how it is regulated.
  • Talk to other people who have tried these treatments, for example, at a cancer support group or through Cancer Council Online Community.
  • Write down any questions.

Discuss your concerns

  • Talk to your therapist or doctor about the therapies you would like to try, and whether there are any potential interactions with your conventional treatments or other side effects you should be aware of.
  • Get a second opinion if you are not happy with the information you receive.

Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out more about using complementary therapies as part of your cancer care.

Finding a complementary therapist

Talking with your GP or cancer care team is a good starting point. Your cancer treatment centre may offer some complementary therapies or be able to recommend suitable therapists in your local area. Natural therapy associations often provide directories of therapists. Your family or friends or support group may also be able to recommend a therapist. Some doctors, nurses and pharmacists are also qualified in a complementary therapy, such as nutritional and herbal medicine, hypnotherapy, counselling, acupuncture or massage.

What to consider when choosing a therapist

  • Always check the therapist’s qualifications and whether they are a member of a professional association.
  • Ask if they have experience treating people with your type of cancer.
  • Ask about the cost for each session and how many sessions you are likely to need.
  • Ask if they have insurance.
  • Confirm that the therapist is willing to communicate with your cancer care team about your conventional treatment, especially if you are using  remedies that may interfere with this treatment.
  • Check whether the therapist would like to see a list of the medicines you are taking or your conventional treatment plan. This reduces the risk of
    them dispensing remedies or other treatments that might interact with your conventional treatment.
  • Keep a record of the treatments given and medicines or supplements you have been prescribed.
  • Take someone with you to appointments to offer support, get involved in the discussion, take notes or simply listen.

How to assess online information

There are 4 key ways to ensure the information you are looking at online is trustworthy:

The source – Is it reputable? Have you seen it before? Is it clear who is providing the information? Check the “About us” section.

The reviewers – Has the information been reviewed by experts with qualifications specifically related to cancer?

The date – When was the information last reviewed? Ideally, it should be within the last 2–3 years.

The claims – Is the website promoting a “miracle cure” or selling something? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Check with your doctor before trying any new therapy.

Can I help myself or should I see a professional?

One of the reasons people with cancer use complementary therapies is because it helps them take an active role in their health and wellbeing.  However, it is important to discuss ways to manage any symptoms and side effects with your doctors, rather than self-diagnosing.

Some simple ways people can help themselves, without the guidance of a professional, include learning gentle massage or acupressure techniques, adding essential oils to their bath, or meditating.

Some people may consider self-prescribing herbs or nutritional supplements. Although this may seem like a cheaper alternative, it may not be safe. The benefits of seeing a professional complementary therapist are that they:

  • are qualified in the therapy or medicine you are considering
  • have an objective view of your case
  • may be experienced in treating a range of conditions and have treated other people with cancer
  • are able to liaise with your cancer specialists, as necessary
  • can prepare a tailor-made treatment plan and dispense remedies based on your individual needs, if they are qualified to do so
  • can recommend good quality products and how to take them to achieve the desired effect
  • can help you avoid the health risks of using complementary therapies that may interact with conventional cancer treatment.

Many websites sell a range of herbs or nutritional supplements that may be less expensive than those you can buy in Australia. However, products purchased from overseas are not covered by the same safety and quality regulations that apply to products sold in Australia. 

A second opinion

Just as you may want to get a second opinion from another cancer specialist about your conventional cancer treatment and medicine, you might want to see a few different complementary therapists to compare how they would approach your therapy.

After consulting with a complementary therapist, you may decide you don’t want to continue seeing them because you are not sure they can offer you the right care for your treatment goals. They may be able to suggest other complementary therapies that would be suitable.

Getting a second opinion can be a valuable part of your overall decision-making process. It can help you feel comfortable about any complementary therapies you choose to have.

Costs

Complementary therapists set their own fees for consultations. The cost can vary depending on the training and experience of the therapist, the length of the consultation, the treatment provided, and where you live.

Fees for a private complementary health therapist can range from about $60 to $200 per hour, which may not include the cost of herbal remedies, essential oils, nutritional supplements or other products. Some cancer centres provide free or subsidised complementary therapies to their patients.

Naturopaths, herbalists and homeopaths may dispense remedies that they mix for you, sell you pre-made nutritional, herbal or homeopathic  supplements, or refer you to a naturopathic dispensary to have a script made up. How much you have to pay for these products varies depending on the type of remedy and the ingredients, strength and quantity. Consider speaking to a few therapists to compare costs.

Complementary therapies are not covered by government-funded schemes such as Medicare or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). It is important to consider the cost of these therapies if you are thinking about using them.

If you have private health insurance, check whether you are eligible for a rebate on the cost of a consultation with a complementary therapist. Many therapies are not subsidised by private health insurance providers, due to lack of evidence for their effectiveness.

Most health funds also do not provide a rebate on the cost of any remedies or supplements that you buy.

Taking part in a clinical trial

Funding for clinical trials or research into the effectiveness and safety of complementary therapies is limited. Because of the popularity of  complementary therapies in Australia, the NICM Health Research Institute at Western Sydney University was established to promote research in this area of health care.

Some health professionals, universities and hospitals are also involved in research and clinical trials. Your hospital or support group may provide opportunities for you to take part in clinical trials and research involving the use of complementary therapies.

If you join a clinical trial for conventional cancer treatment, it is important to check whether using any complementary therapies could impact on the trial results. Speak to your doctor and/or the trial coordinator for information.

You may find it helpful to talk to your specialist, cancer care team or GP, or to get a second opinion. If you decide to take part in a clinical trial, you can withdraw at any time. For more information, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or visit Australian Clinical Trials.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Clinical Trials and Research’

Featured resource

Understanding Complementary Therapies

Download PDF

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.

Related Content