Most types of complementary therapies are part of wider holistic health care systems. Holistic health care aims to treat a person as a whole, not just the disease and its symptoms.
In Australia the main traditional holistic health care systems practised are: naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and homeopathy. Their origins differ, but they share the following beliefs:
Naturopathy maintains that the mind, body and spirit are all connected, and that the body can heal itself through dietary and lifestyle changes. Many of the underlying principles of naturopathy, such as the importance of diet and exercise, are also part of conventional medicine.
Naturopathy finds and treats both the cause and effect of a person’s symptoms using a combination of dietary changes, bodywork such as various forms of massage, and herbal medicines or nutritional supplements.
After taking a case history, a naturopath may suggest a combination of diet changes, bodywork or exercise, and herbal or nutritional remedies.
The benefits of some aspects of naturopathy, such as massage and nutrition (excluding extreme dietary practices), have good clinical evidence for people with cancer. Other aspects of naturopathy have mixed levels of evidence. See our types of therapies page for more information.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is based on using the connection between mind, body and environment to prevent and manage diseases, such as cancer. TCM practitioners consider the person’s overall condition, not just the symptoms. It may help people with cancer strengthen their vital force (qi) and cope with the side effects of conventional treatment.
TCM includes acupuncture, tai chi, qi gong and the use of foods and herbs to improve health.
A TCM practitioner will take a case history and may do a physical examination, including looking at your tongue and taking your pulse (tongue and pulse analysis), to work out the flow of energy and imbalances in your body.
Treatment may nclude one or more of the therapies listed above.
There is clinical evidence for the benefits of some aspects of TCM for people with cancer, while for other aspects the evidence is limited. See individual therapies for further information.
According to Chinese medicine and other medical systems from Asia, everyone has a vital energy or vital force known as qi (pronounced ‘chee').
Qi is said to flow through the body along pathways called meridians. People who use TCM believe that if the flow of qi becomes unbalanced, this can lead to physical and emotional disease or discomfort.
Qi is made up of two opposite and complementary factors known as ‘yin and yang'. In TCM, the belief is that there is yin and yang in everything. Yin is represented by water and yang by fire. The balance of yin and yang maintains harmony in your body, mind and the universe.
TCM also uses the theory of five elements – fire, earth, metal, water, and wood – to explain how the body works. These elements correspond to particular organs and tissues in the body.
Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient Indian system that was founded on the concept that health is achieved when the mind, body and spirit are in balance. Ayurvedic practitioners use a wide range of therapies, including nutritional and herbal medicine, massage, meditation and yoga.
An Ayurvedic practitioner takes a case history and assesses vital force and balance in the body, often using pulse and tongue analysis. Treatment may include one or more of the therapies above.
There's good evidence for some of the treatments that are part of Ayurvedic medicine, such as massage, meditation and yoga. There's limited clinical evidence on the herbal remedies and certain diets used by Ayurvedic therapists. See individual therapies for further information.
Homoeopathy is based on the theory of ‘like cures like'. It tries to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself by giving small doses of highly diluted substances. In larger doses these substances would produce the illness or symptoms. Homoeopathic remedies come as tablets, liquids or creams.
Get more information on homeopathic therapies.
Australia's cultural diversity means some people may want to use traditional healing practices as part of their complementary cancer care.
For example, some Indigenous people with cancer may want the guidance of a traditional doctor or elder who is familiar with bush medicine and Aboriginal spirituality.
Talk to your doctor if you would like to use traditional remedies from your culture.
In 2010, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. It was quite a shock for me and my then fiancée (now my wife). We’d never heard of it.
I was in a lot of pain and wasn’t able to move, but my doctor put me on a combination of drugs. Within a few weeks I was feeling less pain.
Since then I’ve had a lot of treatment. I had a bone marrow transplant, with my brother as the donor, a week after my wedding. At one point I was taking 28 tablets a day.
One morning I woke up with a metallic taste in my mouth and found I couldn’t taste any food.
I saw doctors, dietitians and nutritionists, but no-one could explain why I had lost my sense of taste or if it would come back. Wondering what I was going to eat became all I could think about.
I decided I’d do everything in my power to help myself. I did some research online and found that having low levels of zinc and B vitamins can cause a loss of taste and smell. A friend recommended I see a naturopath.
At my first appointment the naturopath asked me about the myeloma and my treatments.
He also tested my zinc levels by giving me a spoonful of zinc solution and asking me what I could taste, which was nothing.
He suggested I take zinc and vitamin B supplements. Because I’m on a clinical trial, I checked with the nurses beforehand.
They were very encouraging and said it would be okay.
After two months I started to regain my sense of taste and smell. My wife’s a great cook and I can’t wait to have some of her food. You can’t expect a quick fix – I know using the supplements will take time.
Reviewed by: Dr Haryana Dhillon, Research Fellow, Survivorship Research Group, Deputy Director, Centre for Medical Psychology & Evidence-based Decision-making, University of Sydney, and Chair, Clinical Oncology Society of Australia Survivorship Group, NSW; Dr Kylie Dodsworth, GP, VicePresident, Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, SA; Lauren Muir, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Shavita Patel, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; A/Prof Evelin Tiralongo, Lecturer and Researcher in Complementary Medicine, School of Pharmacy, Griffith University, QLD; Gabrielle Toth, Consumer; Dr Xiaoshu Zhu, Director, Academic Program for Chinese Medicine, Senior Lecturer, School of Science and Health, and Researcher, National Institute of Complementary Medicine, University of Western Sydney, NSW.