How to Get Started with Complementary Therapies for Cancer

How to Get Started with Complementary Therapies for Cancer

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

In addition to traditional medical treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy, you may want to consider whether you’d like to include complementary therapies in your cancer care plan. These treatments aren’t usually indicated to replace traditional medicine. Rather, they complement, or work in tandem with, all elements of your care. Just like nutrition and exercise can help with side effects of cancer treatment, other complementary therapies can promote better health and well-being while you’re undergoing treatment.
Examples of complementary medicine include traditional Chinese medicine; homeopathy; naturopathy; mind-body practices like acupuncture, massage therapy, and tai chi; and natural health products like herbs, dietary supplements, and probiotics.
It’s important to note that some complementary therapies are not scientifically proven to have benefits for people with cancer, and some may even do harm. Herbs and dietary supplements, for example, do not get the same rigorous oversight as the pharmaceutical industry, so some products may make unsubstantiated claims about the active ingredients and/or their effects. This can make them harmful when taken by themselves or with other substances, such as the medications your doctor has prescribed. 
Additionally, some practitioners of complementary therapies (such as acupuncture or massage) may not be trained in the unique needs of a person with cancer. Before beginning any complementary therapy, even if it seems harmless, talk with your doctor. Together, you can think through a holistic plan that works for you.
Some complementary treatments have been scientifically studied, and have shown promising outcomes for those who utilize these therapies during their cancer treatment. They include the following:


Acupuncture, an ancient medical treatment originating in China, involves placing thin, flexible needles at strategic points on the body to stimulate the flow of blood and energy, or “chi.” Several studies have found that acupuncture can be an effective and safe adjunct therapy for cancer care. There is strong evidence that acupuncture can relieve nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, reduce the pain associated with cancer as well as from surgery, restore appetite and regulate digestion, and reduce anxiety for people with cancer. The most common side effects of acupuncture include bleeding, soreness, or bruising at the site of needle insertion—these symptoms often dissipate quickly. Though infection is rare, people with low white blood cell counts during cancer treatment should not receive acupuncture.


Reiki is a complementary health approach where practitioners place their hands lightly on (or just above) a person’s skin to promote a sense of well-being. The goal of reiki is to realign a person’s universal life energy to encourage physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing. There are some studies that suggest reiki may reduce anxiety and improve mood in people undergoing cancer treatment; there is also evidence that reiki may reduce cancer-related pain and fatigue. Reiki is considered safe, and can be done remotely over a phone or video call.


Many scientific studies have shown that oncology massage, a specific type of massage that takes into account the needs and sensitivities of people undergoing treatment for cancer, can be effective for reducing symptoms such as stress, pain, anxiety, depression, nausea, and fatigue in people who have had surgery and/or chemotherapy. It’s important to work with a massage therapist who’s knowledgeable about techniques and areas to avoid, especially if your cancer treatments have caused side effects such as sensitive skin or swelling. Use The Society for Oncology Massage to find oncology massage therapists who meet basic training and practice standards.


There is research to suggest inhalation of essential oils like sweet marjoram, lavender, and ginger may be effective for reducing pain, nausea, insomnia, anxiety and depression during cancer treatment. The practice, also known as aromatherapy, is sometimes combined with other complementary therapies, such as diffusing essential oils throughout the room during an acupuncture treatment or adding a few drops of scent to a massage oil. Though inhalation or topical application of essential oils is generally considered to be safe, possible side effects include breathing problems, allergic reactions, and increased sun sensitivity.


This mind-body practice uses breathing, imagery, and focused attention to bring about a sense of calm and relaxation. Studies show that practicing meditation during cancer treatments may help relieve anxiety, stress, and fatigue, while improving sleep and mood. That’s because as soon as you begin to meditate, the waves in your brain shift, with activity-and-stress-oriented beta waves decreasing and relaxation-oriented alpha and theta waves increasing. 
Apps like Calm, Headspace (both $70 annually), 10% Happier ($99 annually), and Insight Timer (free) are excellent and highly accessible guides to starting a practice, and you can download them straight to your smartphone. For more intense and interactive guidance, one-on-one training in Transcendental Meditation is available in many cities worldwide. TM is a personalized, evidence-based practice that is taught in a 4-day course, and many practitioners find it life-altering. The beauty of meditation, however, is that you don’t actually need any guidance or gear to begin: you can simply find a quiet space (or some quiet within yourself), close your eyes, and focus on your breath.  


Reviews have looked at the effects of various dietary supplements and nutritional practices on quality of life, survival, and symptom relief in different types of cancer. Some supplements, such as mistletoe, milk thistle, and vitamin C, have shown promising results in reducing side effects and improving quality of life during treatment of certain cancers. However, some supplements can interfere with the proper functioning of cancer medications, making them too potent or not potent enough. Because some supplements may not mix safely with other drugs, it is critical to discuss all drugs and supplements (even over-the-counter ones) with your cancer care team.

The Bottom Line

Some complementary therapies have undergone careful evaluation and have been found to be safe and effective when used alongside traditional medical treatments for cancer. However, others have been found to be ineffective or possibly harmful. If complementary therapies are of interest to you, it’s worth asking your doctor about which ones fit with your particular treatment protocol. Your doctor may also have recommendations for practitioners who are experienced in working with people who have cancer. Choosing a complementary therapy practitioner should be done with the same level of thought and care as choosing an oncologist.

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