Let's Talk About Complementary & Alternative Care for Cancer
Want to know what natural treatments could help you cope with the disease? Read this.
You’ve seen the headlines about natural medicine trends, from yoga to supplements to diet and exercise fads. When it comes to cancer, you want to know what will help you safely regain your health during treatment and after. But there are loads of competing, sometimes-confusing info to sift through. What can you trust? Well, you can start with us here at HealthCentral: We went to the experts to learn all the science-based truth on complementary care for cancer.
Our Pro Panel
We went to some of the nation’s top experts in cancer and CAM to bring you the most up-to-date information possible.
Lynda Balneaves, R.N., Ph.D.
Associate Professor, College of Nursing
Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba
Nina Sanford, M.D.
Radiation Oncologist, Assistant Professor
Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care, UT Southwestern Medical Center
Heather Greenlee, N.D., Ph.D.
Naturopathic Physician, Associate Member
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Researchers have found that a healthy diet is associated with a reduced risk of cancer. Even if you have cancer, it can help lessen the impact of side effects and improve your quality of life. Studies link nutrition to cancer prevention based on specific physiologic pathways, including reducing inflammation, regulating hormones, and preventing oxidative stress. All to say that food matters.
Here’s the thing: there are therapies that can help you go into remission (the period when your signs and symptoms of cancer are reduced). And some healthcare professionals consider cancer “cured” if it hasn’t returned after five years (also called complete remission). Treatments that achieve a complete remission/cure can include therapies that come from a “natural” source, like some forms of chemo, which are derived from plant alkaloids. But anyone promising a “natural cure” for cancer that doesn’t have evidence to back up that claim is likely pedaling bunk.
As we’ve discussed, herbs can be excellent complementary treatment in oncology for things like nausea, but any claim of “curing” cancer should be tempered by evidence-based medicine results (meaning, proof to back up those claims).
The American Academy of Dermatology warns that black salve isn’t as safe as you might think, stating that it has “never been proven to work.” An article on the AAD’s website cites reports of bad outcomes for people who tried to treat their cancer (including melanoma) using black salve. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against products that are touted as cures for cancer without evidence: “The FDA urges consumers to steer clear of these potentially unsafe and unproven products and to always discuss cancer treatment options with their licensed health care provider.”
What’s Cancer Anyway? Let’s Recap!
First, let’s clarify how cancer comes to be: Cancer occurs when abnormal cells anywhere in your body grow out of control, due to mutations in their DNA. Normal cells divide, age and die predictably, copying DNA as they go. Cancer cells, however, don’t follow those rules. Rather than die off, they mutate, replicate, and form tumors.
What’s known as the primary site of your cancer is the spot where these cells start growing, and that organ or area determines the type of cancer you have. When cancerous cells journey through your blood or lymphatic system (the network of tissues and organs that flush out toxins, waste, and other undesirables), the areas they invade are metastatic sites.
Note that a cell can be abnormal without being cancerous (also known as malignant). It could be benign (not cancer), or precancerous or premalignant (likely to become cancer). Through cancer screening and testing, docs can determine exactly what you’re dealing with.
How Is Cancer Conventionally Treated?
Watching and waiting
Radiation (using beams such as X-rays to kill or slow cancer cells)
Chemotherapy (a drug that stops or slows the growth of cancer cells
Targeted therapy (drugs that target cancer cells)
Immunotherapy (also known as biological therapy, harnessing your immune system)
Hormone therapy (eliminating or blocking hormones that cause cancer to grow)
Bone marrow transplant/stem cell treatment (a procedure that allows your doctor to employ higher doses of chemo to treat your cancer)
Doctors often try more than one treatment, spaced out over weeks and months, as they gauge how your body responds. Your doc might even start you on multiple treatments at the same time.
What Is Complementary Care?
You’ve probably heard of complementary care. Or maybe you know it as alternative care. You know a bit of what these treatments might include (you’re thinking meditation, herbs, and maybe yoga?). But did you know that while “complementary” and “alternative” care are often lumped together (as CAM, Complementary and Alternative Medicine), they’re not the same?
Complementary medicine is used in addition to conventional cancer care. It can include products, practices, and healthcare systems outside of mainstream medicine. These methods don’t “cure” cancer, but work in conjunction with conventional cancer treatments to help in a variety of ways, including pain management and emotional support. Many complementary medicine practices can be considered evidence-based medicine (scientifically studied in randomized controlled trials, the highest level of evidence that guides cancer care).
When complementary medicine works harmoniously with conventional medicine, it’s an approach known as integrative medicine, or integrated care, where physicians treat you holistically—meaning caring for you as a whole patient, taking into account all facets of your cancer experience. These can include:
Any medications or treatment you’re on
Your physical and emotional well-being
When integrative medicine is administered to treat cancer, it’s known as integrative oncology, a patient-centered, evidence-informed field of cancer care. It may include:
Mind and body practices
“Natural” or unconventional products
Alternative medicine, in contrast, is used in place of conventional medicine. Rather than going hand-in-hand with, say surgery and chemo, alternative medicine is done instead of those evidence-based cancer treatments.
A quick note: before you try any new approach during (and after) your cancer treatment journey, make sure to discuss it with your doctor.
What Are Complementary Treatments for Cancer?
If you’ve used or are considering using complementary medicine as a cancer patient, you’re not alone—a national survey found that 65% of respondents who’d been diagnosed with cancer had used some form of it.
There’s good reason to explore complementary care if you have cancer. It can be part of your supportive care—helping where you need it, like soothing and calming your mind and body as you go through this challenging time. Indeed, research suggests that complementary medicine can assist by:
Elevating your mood
Improving your quality of life
There are easily hundreds of complementary treatments for cancer, so we’ve selected a small sample to discuss here. Possibilities include:
Acupuncture: There’s substantial evidence that this ancient Chinese practice of using sterile needles to stimulate different areas of the body can help manage cancer treatment-related nausea and vomiting. It may also help relieve cancer pain and other symptoms, but there’s not enough evidence yet to support that.
Herbs: Ginger, for instance, has been shown to help control nausea from chemotherapy when used with conventional anti-nausea medications. Just keep in mind that any supplements you consume can change your body physiologically—nothing you ingest is without the potential for adverse effects. For instance, herbs can impact blood sugar levels and the blood’s ability to clot.
Massage therapy: Sure, it feels sublime, and it turns out to have additional benefits too: research suggests that massage therapy can help relieve some cancer symptoms including:
Just be careful not to have deep tissue massage near surgery sites, tumors, or any medical devices. And always tell your therapist about your cancer diagnosis.
Meditation: Mindfulness-based meditation has been shown to improve quality of life during treatment. How? Studies of cancer patients have revealed the following happiness-boosting benefits:
Helping with sleep disturbances
Supplements: Herbal supplements for cancer could potentially help manage side effects like nausea and vomiting, pain, and fatigue, but more scientific evidence is required to make safe decisions about the use of these supplements.
Yoga: Preliminary data of this ancient mind/body practice from India suggests that those who do yoga could see improvements in these areas:
Another benefit: It might help lessen fatigue in breast cancer patients and survivors. More study into the myriad benefits of yoga is needed.
Other approaches: These include hypnosis, relaxation therapy, and biofeedback, all of which might help manage cancer symptoms and treatment side effects, based on study results.
One thing to note about all of these approaches: they might not be covered by your health insurance. According to the American Cancer Society, major insurers, including Blue Cross and Medicare, are starting to cover some complementary treatments. On the list above, acupuncture is most commonly covered. Contact your insurer to see what complementary treatments, if any, are paid for. They might be able to direct you to local providers who are covered under your plan.
How Effective Are Alternative Treatments for Cancer?
When the treatments we discussed earlier (and the hundreds of others that are offered) are used in place of conventional medicine, it’s known as an alternative treatment. Nearly 40%, or 4 out of 10 Americans, believes that cancer can be cured by alternative treatments, a 2018 survey of cancer patients and people without cancer, found. However, while research shows that complementary medicine can play an important role in conventional cancer medicine, the same hasn’t been readily found for alternative treatment.
Case in point: in 2009, the Society for Integrative Oncology (the leading international organization for healthcare professionals and researchers working in the field of complementary therapies in cancer care) published guidelines for healthcare professionals when using complementary medicine.
The org reminded healthcare professionals and patients that unproven cancer treatment methods shouldn’t be used in place of conventional options because delaying cancer treatment that’s evidence-based and shown to work reduces the chance of remission/cure for cancer patients.
It’s important to talk with your healthcare professionals about the risks of using alternative therapies so you can make an informed decision about what’s best for your health.
What Are Potential Side Effects of CAM?
There are definite side effects with CAM. You might think that because something is natural, it’s safe. But this isn’t always the case. Arsenic is natural, for instance, but you wouldn’t want to start taking it in large doses.
Another example: Chemotherapy has a multitude of side effects because it destroys both cancerous cells and healthy cells. It’s been cited by many as harmful because it’s made from chemicals. But did you know, some forms of chemo come from nature? Three drugs (Vincristine, Vinblastine, and Vinorelbine) are derived from plant alkaloids and are made from the periwinkle plant (Catharanthus Rosea). Chemo drugs called taxanes (Paclitaxel and Docetaxel) come from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree (Taxus).
Know too that just because something is sold, doesn’t mean it’s been vetted or approved for use—for safety or quality—by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA doesn’t regulate vitamins and supplements, so the onus is on us to do our best to source safe, trustworthy products.
It’s vital to tell your cancer healthcare team about every treatment and therapy you’re using for your cancer, whether it’s receiving acupuncture for nausea, going to the chiropractor for pain, adding St. John’s Wort to your supplement regime to help manage depression, or getting a massage to feel better.
If you’re reluctant to be open with your doc, you’re not alone: 29% of cancer patients did not disclose their CAM practices to their providers, according to one study. Secret-keeping could be downright dangerous. Let’s use these four seemingly innocuous examples to illustrate why:
Acupuncture. While it’s a safe intervention for cancer, if you have blood coagulation issues from cancer and treatment, you could experience bruising and bleeding from acupuncture. You also need to see an experienced practitioner who won’t leave a needle because (while rare), it could lead to further bleeding. With your immune system potentially compromised from cancer treatment, it’s also important to ensure your acupuncturist uses sterile technique and needles.
Chiropractic work. If you have fragile bones from cancer treatment or a bone metastasis from cancer itself, you need to be cautious about having your bones manipulated. Any sudden thrusting motion could result in a fractured.
St. John’s Wort. This popular herbal supplement helps people with mild to moderate depression—but it also clears some drugs from the body too soon. This can be a problem for medications like cancer drugs. If they’re cleared too fast, they can’t do their work. Tell your doctor and pharmacist every supplement and vitamin you’re on.
Massage. A deep tissue massage near a cancer tumor, cancer surgical site, or drug port could cause physical damage.
Being open with your doc--both before you start a complementary treatment and while you’re on it--is key to helping it complement, rather than detract, from the conventional care you’re receiving.
What Do I Need to Know About Cancer Cure Scams?
When you have cancer, you of course want a cure (as quickly and painlessly as possible, please). But that desire can leave you vulnerable to fake claims, especially in the alternative medicine space. Both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regularly warn the public about fraudulent cancer treatments.
It can be hard to spot the signs of snake oil. Without a medical degree, how can you be wise to empty promises? You’ll often see the same language used in cancer CAM scams, according to the FDA. These phrases should raise a red flag that a treatment is just too good to be true:
“Treats all forms of cancer”
“Miraculously kills cancer cells and tumors”
“Shrinks malignant tumors”
“More effective than chemotherapy”
“Attacks cancer cells, leaving healthy cells intact”
Here’s how you can protect yourself while receiving evidence-based integrated care:
If you can, find cancer doctors who have experience in both conventional and CAM approaches, or integrative oncology.
Work with CAM healthcare professionals who have experience with cancer patients.
If anyone in your healthcare team gives treatment recommendations, ask them to provide evidence and ask what their experience has been with cancer patients who have taken those recommendations.
Be wary of any CAM healthcare professional who over-promises but offers scant science-based evidence for what they’re recommending. Also, beware of individuals who share conspiracy theories that a “cure” for cancer has been hidden by healthcare professionals or the pharmaceutical industry.
What Role Do Diet and Exercise Play in Cancer Care?
You might be wondering now: with all this talk of complementary and alternative medicine, what about food? And diet? And exercise? What role does it play in all this? Is there a cancer diet that could be a complementary treatment?
Turns out, there’s a strong body of evidence that a healthy diet and regular physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of cancer. The scientific literature links nutrition to cancer prevention based on specific physiologic pathways, including reducing inflammation, regulating hormones, and preventing oxidative stress. Even after a cancer diagnosis, by making smart choices about what they put on their plate, patients can:
Lessen the impact of treatment’s side effects
Improve their quality of life
Food has power. To wield it, the American Institute for Cancer Research and American Cancer Society recommends you:
Eat a plant-based diet
Limit your intake of animal products (focus on fish)
Keep whole grains in your diet for vital nutrients
Choose foods low in healthy fats and low in added and processed sugars
Lower your alcohol intake (1 drink per day for women, 2 drinks per day for men)
As for physical activity? While you should talk to your healthcare team about what kind and amount of exercise is safe during treatment, The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has issued guidelines for physical activity for cancer survivors, suggesting 150-300 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Exercise is a real magic pill, helping to:
Decrease anxiety and depression
As you can imagine, all of these benefits that come along with being active are particularly important when you’re trying to put cancer behind you. Resistance training, in particular, has been proven to improve:
Quality of life
Lymphedema (swelling in the arms and legs, often related to damage to or removal of your lymph nodes)
Exercise, like so many CAM options, can help you both feel stronger and respond to treatment better. Just as with other types of complementary treatments, you’ll want to talk to your doc about how to integrate it, so you can reap the maximum benefits both from your lifestyle changes and your conventional cancer treatment.
- Complementary Medicine: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2014). “Cancer: In Depth.” nccih.nih.gov/health/cancer-in-depth
- Integrative Oncology: JNCI Monographs. (2017). “A Comprehensive Definition for Integrative Oncology.” academic.oup.com/jncimono/article/2017/52/lgx012/4617827
- Acupuncture and Cancer: Journal of the National Cancer Institute. (2017). “The National Cancer Institute’s Conference on Acupuncture for Symptom Management in Oncology: State of the Science, Evidence, and Research Gaps.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6061411/
- Chiropractic Care and Cancer: Seminars in Oncology Nursing. (2005). “Alternatives in cancer pain treatment: the application of chiropractic care.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16092806
- What Is Chiropractic Care?: International Journal of Community Based Nursing and Midwifery. (2015). “Chiropractic: Is it Efficient in Treatment of Diseases? Review of Systematic Reviews.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4591574/
- Massage and Cancer: Supportive Care in Cancer. (2009). “Massage therapy for cancer palliation and supportive care: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials.” link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00520-008-0569-z
- Meditation and Other Techniques: Integrative Oncology. (2010). “Mind–Body Therapies in Integrative Oncology.” link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11864-010-0129-x
- Yoga and Breast Cancer: Acta Oncologica. (2012). “Can yoga improve fatigue in breast cancer patients? A systematic review.” tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/0284186X.2011.637960
- What Does Insurance Cover?: American Cancer Society. (2015). “Will My Insurance Cover Alternative and Complementary Therapies?” cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/complementary-and-alternative-methods-and-cancer/insurance-coverage-for-cam.html
- Who Believes in Alternative Therapies?: The ASCO Post. (2019). “Findings From ASCO’s Second National Cancer Opinion Survey.” ascopost.com/issues/january-25-2019/findings-from-asco-s-second-national-cancer-opinion-survey/
- Alternative Therapies: American Cancer Society. (2015). “What Are Complementary and Alternative Methods?” cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/complementary-and-alternative-methods-and-cancer/what-are-cam.html
- Evidence-Based Medicine and CAM: Society for Integrative Oncology. (2009). “Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guidelines for Integrative Oncology: Complementary Therapies and Botanicals.” integrativeonc.org/docman-library/docs/65-sio-guidelines-2009/file
- Nondisclosure of CAM to Doctors: JAMA Oncology. (2019). “Prevalence and Nondisclosure of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use in Patients With Cancer and Cancer Survivors in the United States.” jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaoncology/fullarticle/2730130?guestAccessKey=b931cef7-147d-429b-80e7-b3d32b5182eb&utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_content=tfl&utm_term=041119
- Natural Product Claims: Pharmacy and Therapeutics. (2010). “Current Issues Regarding Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in the United States.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2957745/
- Side Effects and St. John’s Wort: Australian Government Department of Health. (2001). “St John's Wort: Important interactions between St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) preparations and prescription medicines.” tga.gov.au/alert/st-johns-wort-important-interactions-between-st-johns-wort-hypericum-perforatum-preparations-and-prescription-medicines
- Fraudulent Claims: U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016). “Products Claiming to "Cure" Cancer Are a Cruel Deception.” fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/products-claiming-cure-cancer-are-cruel-deception
- Healthy Eating: World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. (2018). “Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective.” wcrf.org/dietandcancer/contents
- Physical Activity Guidelines: Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd edition.” health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf