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.


Fact

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.

What may help

Weigh it up

The Cancer Council NSW advises you consider the likely benefits and side-effects, possible negative interactions with conventional medicine, the credentials of the practitioner and the cumulative costs of treatment.

Talk to your Doctor

You may think your doctor would resist the idea of non-conventional therapies. In fact, many see value in complementary medicines and advise their patients to use them.

General questions to ask your doctor about complementary therapies:

  • Are you familiar with complementary therapies or medicines?
  • Are you qualified in complementary therapies yourself?
  • Are there any complementary therapies that you think might benefit me?
  • Would you be happy for me to use complementary therapies?
  • Would you be willing to guide me in my research or choice of complementary therapies?
  • Would you be willing to talk to my complementary therapists about my case?
  • Can you recommend any complementary therapists to me?
  • Do you know whether the complementary medicines I am taking or wish to take will interfere with my chemotherapy or other conventional treatments?

Fact

Whether you are acting on your doctor's advice or not, it is important for them to know what medicines or therapies you are using, in case of a potentially dangerous interation with your regular medicine.

Do your homework

Many complementary therapies are accepted practices carried out by qualified practitioners, as are some alternative therapies. If you are worried about the legitimacy of a therapy, a good place to start is the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which keeps a record of known medical scams. Quackwatch a not-for-profit website from the US, which claims to be an independently run guide to “quackery” and health fraud, may also be worth a look.

Some questions you might consider when deciding what complementary therapies to use or whether to use them at all are:

  • How does the therapy work?
  • Will the therapy directly harm me because of:
    • its side effects?
    • possible interaction with other medication?
    • needing to stop conventional treatment?
    • being told by the therapist to stop or delay all conventional treatment?
  • Is the cost of the therapies or medicines beyond my means?

To help you answer these questions, you need to talk to complementary therapists and doctors. Depending on their area of specialty, they may not know the answers to some of these questions and you may need to work together to find out more information.

General questions to ask any potential complementary therapist

  • What are your qualifications? Are you a member of a professional association?
  • What training or experience do you have in treating people with cancer? Have you treated anyone with my type of cancer?
  • Are you willing to work with my doctors or other health professionals I may need to see?
  • How can the therapies you practise help me? Are there any specific precautions you would take for me?
  • Are there side effects or risks associated with these therapies?
  • Has the therapy been tested in clinical trials?
  • Have the findings been published and are they available for me to read?
  • Can these therapies be combined with conventional treatment?
  • How long should I use this therapy and how will I know if it’s working?
  • Are you able to do home visits if I am not well enough to attend your clinic?
  • How long are your consultations?
  • What do you charge for a consultation?
  • What can I expect from a consultation?
  • Do you dispense your own medicine and supplements?
  • How much can I expect to pay for medicines?
  • Have the products or medicines you dispense been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration?

Q&A

Q: How do I know if a practitioner of complementary or alternative therapy is legitimate?
A: The main thing is to be wary of vague or incredible claims. If a “therapy” claims to cure all cancers, uses “secret” ingredients with “amazing” results, or is backed by clinical studies that are never specified , then alarm bells should ring. Also, watch for practitioners who do not display any credible qualifications, who demand a lot of money (especially in advance), or who say you should stop your conventional treatment.
(Source: Cancer Council NSW, Understanding Complementary Therapies, 2008)

For more information

Call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20, for a copy of Understanding Complementary Therapies, which covers more than 20 therapies and the issues around choosing a therapy.

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