Following is an overview of some cancer treatments.
Conventional treatments and medicines
These can be used to control or treat cancer by slowing or stopping the growth and spread of the disease. They can also provide relief from symptoms. Conventional treatments are based on scientific evidence and clinical trials. They include surgery, radiation therapy (also known as radiotherapy) and systemic treatments, such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Complementary therapies and medicines
These tend to focus on the whole person, not just the cancer. They are used with conventional medicine, and may help people cope better with symptoms of cancer and/or side effects caused by conventional treatments. Some have been scientifically tested and shown to work. Research into complementary therapies and medicines is growing.
Alternative therapies and medicines
These are used in place of conventional treatments and medicine. Many alternative therapies have not been scientifically tested, so there is no proof they stop cancer growing or spreading. Others have been tested and shown not to be effective. While side effects of alternative treatments are not always known, some are serious and can delay or stop the cancer being treated effectively. Examples include coffee enemas and magnet therapy.
Integrative oncology or medicine
This is the combined use of conventional treatments and evidence-based complementary therapies. This approach has been adopted by some cancer centres.
"Complementary" versus "alternative"
The terms "complementary" and "alternative" are often used as though they mean the same thing. And although they are sometimes combined into one phrase – complementary and alternative therapies – they are different. Complementary therapies are used alongside conventional treatments and medicines, usually to manage side effects. Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional treatments. Many complementary therapies are being scientifically researched for use in people with cancer, while alternative therapies are unlikely to have been tested in this way.
How do we know treatments work?
Conventional cancer treatments have been through a research process to see whether they work and are safe. This is known as evidence-based medicine. New treatments are first tested in laboratories and then on large groups of people in clinical trials.
Clinical trials involving two groups of people provide the strongest evidence. One group is given the new treatment and the other group is given the existing standard treatment. The results in the two groups are compared to work out which treatment is better. If the new treatment works better than existing treatments, it may become the new standard treatment. This process provides the scientific evidence for the effectiveness and safety of the treatment.
While some complementary therapies are supported by strong evidence, others are not. As their use increases, many are now being scientifically tested to see whether they are safe for people with cancer, whether they reduce or improve specific symptoms to help people feel better during and after conventional treatment, and how they interact with conventional treatments.
Many alternative therapies and medicines have not been scientifically tested. Others have been tested and shown not to work or to be harmful to people with cancer. Some alternative practitioners promote their therapies and medicines as a cure for cancer, and encourage people to stop using conventional cancer treatment. If this is something you are considering, discuss this with your doctor first.
Alternative therapies can be expensive, and they are not covered by Medicare or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), a government-funded scheme that subsidises some prescription medicines. It is important to consider the cost of these therapies if you are thinking about using them.
Cancer Council does not recommend the use of alternative therapies as a treatment for cancer. 1 Complementary therapies that have been proven to be safe to use alongside conventional cancer treatments and medicines are discussed in this section.
To find out more about clinical trials, see Understanding Clinical Trials and Research or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Signs of unsafe therapies
Keep the following warning signs in mind if you are thinking about using an alternative therapy or medicine instead of a conventional treatment or medicine:
- The practitioner does not have a qualification from an accredited educational institution in the therapy they provide.
- The practitioner is not registered with a governing body or a professional association.
- The practitioner tells you that using conventional treatment or medicine will stop their therapy or remedy from working.
- The practitioner asks you not to talk to your doctors about their treatment, or won't tell you the ingredients that make up a herbal preparation they give you.
- The practitioner claims that their treatment cures cancer and other illnesses.
- The practitioner says there are clinical studies for the effectiveness of their remedy or therapy, but does not show you any articles that have appeared in reputable medical journals.
- The treatment costs a lot of money or you need to pay in advance for several months' supply of a remedy.
- All potential side effects have not been explained.
- You need to travel overseas to have the treatment.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) tracks health and medical scams to help the public spot and avoid scams. To find out more, visit their websites at scamwatch.gov.au or accc.gov.au.
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Expert content reviewers:
Suzanne Grant, Senior Acupuncturist, Chris O'Brien Lifehouse, NSW; A/Prof Craig Hassed, Senior Lecturer, Department of General Practice, Monash University, VIC; Mara Lidums, Consumer; Tanya McMillan, Consumer; Simone Noelker, Physiotherapist and Wellness Centre Manager, Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Byeongsang Oh, Acupuncturist, University of Sydney and Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, NSW; Sue Suchy, Consumer; Marie Veale, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Prof Anne Williams, Nursing Research Consultant, Centre for Nursing Research, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and Chair, Health Research, School of Health Professions, Murdoch University, WA.
1. Cancer Council Australia, Position statement – Complementary and alternative therapies, wiki.cancer.org.au/policy/Position_statement_-_Complementary_and_alternative_therapies, 2013.