Complementary and alternative treatment questions

1. I've read a bit about art therapy and how it can help some people. How can I find out where it's available?


Art therapy is thought of as a complementary therapy in cancer care. There's no scientific evidence to prove art therapy can prevent, control or cure cancer, but it's been known to help some people cope with their emotions and certain side effects from their treatment.

It's important for people to live well during their treatment. This means doing things that are important to them and which give them pleasure. Cancer and its treatment can be hard work. Even when cure is possible, people can still feel very low at times during their treatment. Having an ‘outlet' or ‘hobby' to help you cope is important.

Follow these links to learn more about Art therapy:

The Australian and New Zealand Art Therapy Association 

Art Therapy Finds Creativity in Cancer 
(A press release from the Western Australian Health Department on art therapy in women with breast cancer)

Art therapy  
A UK cancer patient website. Some details about finding a therapist and costs won't apply in Australia.

Art Therapy may be available through the Allied Health Department at cancer treatment centres, and there are Art Therapists who do home visits. The Victorian Government's Better Health Channel has links to the Arts Access Society's Art Directory. The directory includes in-home art therapy services for people with physical disabilities. 

Cancer Council Victoria runs an annual Arts Awards program that gives people with cancer the chance to share their art and cancer experience with others.

For more information, contact the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20, and ask to speak to a cancer nurse.

2. I've heard about cannabis (marijuana) helping people with cancer cope with pain and nausea. Is it possible to get cannabis to help with my pain?


Being in a lot of pain is exhausting both emotionally and physically. You may find it hard to believe it ever will be kept under control and it's not surprising you'd want to try anything to help relieve it.

However, there's a lot that can be done to help cancer pain. First, speak with your doctor about your pain. Let your doctor know the type of pain you're having, where it is and what tends to make it worse or better. Your doctor will know your situation best and be able to suggest ways to help control your pain.

In the past few years cannabis (also known as ‘marijuana, weed, hashish, pot or grass') has been the subject of a lot of medical research. There have been many stories in the media about it. Scientific names include Cannabis sativa and delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Research has been looking at how it can

  • Help with pain relief
  • Treat certain cancers (e.g. chemical cannabinoids to help treat certain brain tumours. This is very early stage research.)

Possessing any part of the cannabis plant is still illegal in most western countries, including most parts of Australia. This means there's a lot of disagreement over its use medically. There have been studies showing smoking cannabis or taking it by mouth is helpful in controlling pain and nausea in people with cancer and other illnesses. However, its harmful side effects are a cause of great concern. There is research to suggest smoking cannabis can cause lung cancer. Until more research has been done we really don't know how useful cannabis is in helping people with cancer. So we don't recommend its use.

For more information

To speak with a cancer nurse, call the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20.

3. My sister has cancer and read about using something called complementary or alternative cancer treatments. I'm a bit worried as she seems to be thinking about giving up her chemotherapy to try these. Can you tell me more about them?


Like many people who've been diagnosed with cancer, your sister will want to be sure she's getting the best treatment for her type of cancer. For most people cancer treatment will include one or more of the following

These cancer treatments are known and proven through clinical trials to help treat and control many types of cancers. They're often referred to as ‘conventional treatments'.

There are other treatment terms you may come across, including Complementary and Alternative Medicines for cancer. There's a significant difference between complementary and alternative cancer treatments. A complementary therapy is one used alongside your standard cancer treatment such as massage or acupuncture for example. Alternative cancer therapies are used instead of standard cancer treatments such as a special diet or herbal treatment.

Generally, most complementary therapies are safe. Some are proven to help improve people's feeling of wellbeing and ability to cope. We recommend anyone thinking of using any type of complementary or alternative treatment, discusses it with their treating doctor before trying anything.

Some CAM treatments can interfere with conventional cancer therapy. Looking into these issues with your cancer specialist ensures you receive safe and reliable information. It allows you to support your treatment goals in the best way possible. 

The use of CAM has become more popular in the past 10 years. Whilst some complementary therapies can help people feel better, it's important to remember there are no known CAM treatments that can help to treat, cure, prevent or control any type of cancer.

To speak with a cancer nurse, contact your local Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20.

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Updated: 17 Jan, 2012