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If you and your doctor have not already considered complementary treatments or alternative therapies in the earlier stages of your cancer, there is a good chance you may look at them as your disease progresses.

It is easy to confuse the terms complementary and alternative, or even to use them interchangeably. The fact is they are distinct from each other.
You may find some complementary therapies help you control certain symptoms and side-effects, help you relax, help your body fight infection or generally seem to be a “healthier” way of managing your cancer. Whatever your reasons, you would be one of the 65% of people with cancer who use complementary therapies.

Your doctor is probably less likely to recommend or endorse alternative therapies. Nevertheless, some people with advanced cancer turn to less orthodox treatments, especially if they feel they have run out of options.


Here is how the Cancer Council NSW defines the differences between complementary and alternative therapies.

Complementary therapies are used alongside conventional treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and include a range of methods: mind-body techniques such as meditation, counselling and hypnotherapy; body-based practices such as massage, acupuncture and yoga; and biological-based therapies such as naturopathic nutrition and Chinese herbal medicine. Complementary therapies don't claim to cure cancer, but aim to relieve side-effects of treatment, or reduce the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis.

Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional treatment.  These therapies may be harmful if people with cancer delay or stop using conventional treatment in favour of them. Many of these therapies claim to stop cancer growth and to cure cancer. However, most alternative therapies have not been scientifically tested, so there is no proof that they work, or they have been found to be ineffective. Examples include microwave therapy, coffee enemas, high-dose vitamin supplementation or diets that replace conventional therapy.

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Life, Hope & Reality was developed and written by Afaf Girgis, Claire Johnson, and Sylvie Lambert with funding from the NHMRC and Cancer Council NSW.

Last updated 30 August 2015