Complementary therapies

Friday 1 May, 2015

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On this page: Cancer treatments | 'Complementary' vs 'alternative' | What's the evidence? | Safety of alternative therapies

This information has been prepared to help people with cancer, their families and friends, understand more about complementary cancer therapies. There are many reasons why people with cancer consider using complementary therapies, which are generally used in combination with conventional cancer treatment. They may offer you physical, emotional and spiritual support, reduce side effects from medical treatment, and improve quality of life.

This information provides an overview of the role of complementary therapies in cancer care. It doesn't include information about alternative therapies, which are used instead of conventional treatment. If you want to consider using complementary therapies, discuss his with your doctors, pharmacists and other health professionals qualified in the therapies you are interested in.

Cancer treatments

The most effective form of treatment for cancer is conventional medicine. Some people use complementary therapies as well to relieve side effects of their cancer treatments. Alternative therapies have not been shown to be effective in treating cancer.

Conventional medicine

This can be used to control or cure cancer by slowing or stopping the growth and spread of the disease. It can also provide relief from symptoms. Conventional treatments are based on scientific evidence and successful clinical trials, and include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone treatment. The treatment you have depends on the type, stage and location of the cancer, your age and general health.

Complementary therapies and medicines

These tend to focus on the whole person, not just the cancer. They may help people cope better with symptoms of cancer and/or side effects caused by conventional treatments. Research into complementary therapies and medicines is increasing.

Alternative therapies and medicines

These are used in place of conventional medical treatments. This can delay or stop the cancer being treated effectively. Many alternative therapies have not been scientifically tested, so there is no proof they stop cancer growing or spreading. Others have been shown to not be effective. Side effects of alternative treatments are not always known.

What's the evidence?

Conventional cancer treatments have been through a rigorous testing process to see how safe and effective they are. New treatments are first tested in laboratories and then on large groups of people in what is called a clinical trial.

The strongest evidence comes from clinical trials that involve two groups of people. One group is given the new treatment and the other group is given the existing standard treatment. The two groups are compared. The results are looked at by independent experts (peer-reviewed) and published in medical journals. If the new treatment works better than existing treatments, it may become the new standard treatment. This process provides the scientific evidence for the treatment.

With the increasing use of complementary therapies, many are now being scientifically tested to see what effects they have on people with cancer, how they interact with conventional treatments and why they might be effective.

Many of these tests have explored whether complementary therapies and medicines are effective in reducing specific symptoms to help people feel better during and after conventional cancer treatment. Some therapies are supported by strong evidence, while others lack rigorous scientific evidence.

To find out more about clinical trials, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of Understanding Clinical Trials and Research

Many alternative therapies and medicines have not been scientifically tested, or they 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. Only complementary therapies that have been proven to be safe to use alongside conventional cancer treatments are discussed in this section.

'Complementary' vs 'alternative'

The terms ‘complementary’ and ‘alternative’ are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing. Complementary therapies are designed to be used alongside conventional cancer treatments, usually to manage side effects. Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional treatment. Many complementary therapies are being scientifically researched for use in people with cancer, while alternative therapies are unlikely to be tested in this way.

Safety of alternative therapies

Keep the following warning signs in mind if you are thinking bout using an alternative cancer treatment instead of onventional 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 conventional medical treatment will stop the therapy or remedy they provide 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.
  • The practitioner says there are clinical studies for the effectiveness of their remedy or therapy, but does not show you proof that has appeared in trusted medical journals.
  • The treatment costs a lot of money or you need to pay in advance for several months’ supply of a remedy.
  • You need to travel overseas to have the treatment.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) racks health and medical scams in an effort to keep the public informed about which scams are in circulation. To find out more, visit ScamWatch or the ACCC website.

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.


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