Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Cancer Treatment


In addition to the traditional cancer treatment techniques that doctors use to treat cancer, such as radiation and chemotherapy, there are also some alternative treatment choices. Note: These treatment do not replace traditional medicine, but rather should be used as a supplement to the treatment plan your physician recommends.

Alternative treatments are known as complementary and alternative medicine -- CAM, for short.

People with cancer may use CAM to:

  • Help cope with the side effects of cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain, and fatigue
  • Comfort themselves and ease the worries of cancer treatment and related stress
  • Feel that they are doing something more to help with their own care
  • Try to treat or cure their cancer

It's natural to want to fight your cancer in any way you can. There is a lot of information available, and new methods for treating cancer are always being tested, so it may be hard to know where to start.

Many people try CAM therapies during cancer care. CAM does not work for everyone, but some methods may help you manage stress, nausea, pain, or other symptoms or side effects.

Be sure to talk to your doctor before you try anything new. This will help ensure that nothing gets in the way of your cancer treatment.

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is any medical system, practice, or product that is not thought of as standard care. Standard medical care is care that is based on scientific evidence. For cancer, it includes chemotherapy, radiation, biological therapy, and surgery.

Complementary Medicine

Complementary medicine is used along with standard medical treatments. One example is using acupuncture to help with side effects of cancer treatment.

Alternative Medicine

Alternative medicine is used in place of standard medical treatments. One example is using a special diet to treat cancer instead of a method that a cancer specialist (an oncologist) suggests.

Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine is a total approach to care that involves the patient's mind, body, and spirit. It combines standard medicine with the CAM practices that have shown the most promise.

For example, some people learn to use relaxation as a way to reduce stress during chemotherapy.

Mind-Body Medicines

These are based on the belief that your mind is able to affect your body. Some examples are:

  • Meditation: Focused breathing or repetition of words or phrases to quiet the mind
  • Biofeedback: Using simple machines, the patient learns how to affect certain body functions that are normally out of one's awareness (such as heart rate)
  • Hypnosis: A state of relaxed and focused attention in which the patient concentrates on a certain feeling, idea, or suggestion to aid in healing
  • Yoga: Systems of stretches and poses, with special attention given to breathing
  • Imagery: Imagining scenes, pictures, or experiences to help the body heal
  • Creative outlets: Such as art, music, or dance

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Biologically Based Cancer Treatments

One type of complementary cancer treatment is called aBiologically Based Practice. This type of CAM uses things found in nature. This includes dietary supplements and herbal products. Some examples are:

  • Vitamins
  • Herbs
  • Foods
  • Special diets

A note about nutrition: It's common for people with cancer to have questions about different foods to eat during treatment. Yet it's important to know that there is no one food or special diet that has been proven to control cancer. Too much of any one food is not helpful, and may even be harmful. Because of nutrition needs you may have, it's best to talk with the doctor in charge of your treatment about the foods you should be eating.

Here are some important facts about dietary supplements such as herbs and vitamins:

  • They may affect how well other medicines work in your body. Herbs and some plant-based products may keep medicines from doing what they are supposed to do. These medicines can be ones your doctor prescribes for you, or even ones you buy off the shelf at the store. For example, the herb St. John's wort, which some people with cancer use for depression, may cause certain anticancer drugs not to work as well as they should.
  • Herbal supplements can act like drugs in your body. They may be harmful when taken by themselves, with other substances, or in large doses. For example, some studies have shown that kava, an herb that has been used to help with stress and anxiety, may cause liver damage.
  • Vitamins can also take strong action in your body. For example, high doses of vitamins, even vitamin C, may affect how chemotherapy and radiation work. Too much of any vitamin is not safe--even in a healthy person.

Tell your doctor if you are taking any dietary supplements, no matter how safe you think they are. This is very important. Even though there are ads or claims that something has been used for years, they do not prove that it is safe or effective. It is still important to be careful.

Supplements do not have to be approved by the Federal Government before being sold to the public. Also, a prescription is not needed to buy them. Therefore, it's up to consumers to decide what is best for them.

Energy Medicine

Energy medicine involves the belief that the body has energy fields that can be used for healing and wellness. Therapists use pressure or move the body by placing their hands in or through these fields. Some examples are:

  • Tai Chi: Involves slow, gentle movements with a focus on the breath and concentration
  • Reiki : Balancing energy either from a distance or by placing hands on or near the patient
  • Therapeutic touch: Moving hands over energy fields of the body.

Whole Medical Systems

These are healing systems and beliefs that have evolved over time in different cultures and parts of the world. Some examples are:

  • Ayurvedic medicine: A system from India emphasizing balance among body, mind, and spirit
  • Chinese medicine: Based on the view that health is a balance in the body of two forces called yin and yang. Acupuncture is a common practice in Chinese medicine that involves stimulating specific points on the body to promote health, or to lessen disease symptoms and treatment side effects
  • Homeopathic medicine : Uses very small doses of substances to trigger the body to heal itself
  • Naturopathic medicine: Uses different methods that help the body naturally heal itself.

Doctors and CAM Practitioners

Talk with your doctor before you use CAM. Some people with cancer are afraid that their doctor won't understand or approve of the use of CAM. But doctors know that people with cancer want to take an active part in their care. They want the best for their patients and often are willing to work with them.

Talk to your doctor to make sure that all aspects of your cancer care work together. This is important because things that seem safe, such as certain foods or pills, may interfere with your cancer treatment.

Choose Practitioners with Care

CAM practitioners are people who have training in the therapies listed on pages 2-6. Choosing one should be done with the same care as choosing a doctor. Here are some things to remember when choosing a practitioner:

  • Ask your doctor or nurse to suggest someone or speak with someone who knows about CAM.
  • Ask whether someone at your cancer center or doctor's office can help you find a CAM practitioner. There may be a social worker or physical therapist who can help you.
  • Ask whether your hospital keeps lists of centers or has staff who can suggest people.
  • Contact CAM professional organizations to get names of practitioners who are certified. This means that they have proper training in their field.
  • Contact local health and wellness organizations.
  • Ask about each practitioner's training and experience.
  • Ask whether the practitioner has a license to practice in your state. If you want to confirm the answer, ask what organization gives out the licenses. Then, you may choose to follow up with a phone call.
  • Call your health care plan to see if it covers this therapy.

Questions to Ask CAM Practitioners

  • What types of CAM do you practice?
  • What are your training and qualifications?
  • Do you see other patients with my type of cancer?
  • Will you work with my doctor?
  • How can this help me?
  • Do you know of studies that prove it helps?
  • What are the risks and side effects?
  • Will this interfere with my cancer treatment?
  • How long will I be on the therapy?
  • What will it cost?
  • Do you have information that I can read about it?
  • Are there any reasons why I should not use it?

Questions To Ask Yourself and Your Loved One

  • Do I feel comfortable with this person?
  • Do I like how the office looks and feels?
  • Do I like the staff?
  • Does this person support standard cancer treatments?
  • How far am I willing to travel for treatment?
  • Is it easy to get an appointment?
  • Are the hours good for me?
  • Will insurance cover the cost of CAM?

Call your health plan or insurer to see whether they cover CAM therapies. Many are not covered.

Source: National Cancer Institute (NCI)

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