On this page: What types are there? | Who uses complementary therapies? | Why do people use these therapies? | Should I tell my doctor? | Which therapies work? | Are they safe? | What can I do if something goes wrong? | Key points
What types are there?
Complementary therapies is a broad term that covers a range of different therapies. They can be grouped into different categories and some fit into more than one category. Many complementary therapies are also part of whole medical systems – naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, ayurvedic medicine and homeopathy.
- Art therapy
- Laughter yoga
- Life coaching
- Mindfulness meditation
- Music therapy
- Relaxation and meditation
- Spiritual practices
- Support groups
- Exercise techniques
- Qi gong
- Tai chi
- Western herbal medicine
- Chinese herbal medicine
- Flower remedies
- Balanced diet
- Naturopathic nutrition
Who uses complementary therapies?
Complementary therapies are widely used by people with cancer in Australia. Research shows that two out of three people with cancer used at least one form of complementary therapy during or after their cancer treatment. 2 Women are the most common users of complementary therapies.
Why do people use these therapies?
There are many reasons why people diagnosed with cancer use complementary therapies. 2 For some, it is to try to improve their quality of life. Other reasons include:
- taking a more active part in their health
- managing the symptoms and side effects of conventional cancer treatment, such as fatigue, nausea or pain
- boosting the immune system to help fight infection
- strengthening the body to cope with treatment
- looking for a more holistic way of treating the whole person
- managing changes in sexuality (libido, self-esteem and intimate relationships).
Complementary therapy use in palliative care
Many palliative care services offer complementary therapies to patients to help improve their quality of life. Most commonly, these include mind–body techniques such as massage, aromatherapy, relaxation and meditation. Health professionals involved in palliative care often support complementary therapy use.
Should I tell my doctor?
Yes. Discuss any therapy you may be using or are thinking about using with your doctors. It's important to tell your doctors before you start using any complementary therapy, especially if you are having chemotherapy or radiation therapy or taking medicines.
It's also important to tell your complementary therapist that you have cancer, and advise them of the conventional treatments and medicines you're having.
Which therapies work?
Cancer Council supports the use of complementary therapies that have been proven to be safe and effective in scientific studies. Not all therapies in this book have been scientifically proven to be clinically effective. Where the evidence is not available, the possible benefits and any harm they might cause should be considered by you and your health care team.
Personal (anecdotal) evidence from people with cancer – and, in some cases, a long history of use in traditional medicine – suggest that particular therapies may be useful for some people. Evidence supporting the different therapies is summarised in the individual sections.
There is some level of evidence from clinical trials that the therapies in the table below can help manage symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment. 3,4
||Clinically proven benefits
reduces chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting; improves quality of life
improves sleep and quality of life
art therapy, music therapy
reduce anxiety and stress; manage fatigue; aid expression of feelings
counselling, support groups
help reduce distress, anxiety and depression; improve quality of life
helps manage fatigue; improves balance, coordination and quality of life
|reduces pain, anxiety, nausea and vomiting
|improves quality of life; reduces anxiety, depression, pain and nausea
meditation, relaxation, mindfulness
reduce stress and anxiety; improve coping and quality of life
|prevents and manages malnutrition; helps heal wounds and damaged tissue
|reduces anxiety and fatigue; improves quality of life
|help reduce stress; instil peace; improve ability to manage challenges
|reduces anxiety and stress; improves strength, flexibility and quality of life
|reduces anxiety and stress; improves general wellbeing and quality of life
*Listed in alphabetical order
Are they safe?
Many complementary therapies have been evaluated and are safe and effective to use together with conventional cancer treatment and medicine. However, some complementary therapies can affect the way conventional treatments and medicines work, and even stop them from working altogether.
Sometimes people think natural products are safe, but this isn't always true. Some products may affect how well other medicines work in your body. See the information on individual therapies in the following sections and Tips for using herbal products safely for more details on potential side effects and other considerations.
Regulation of medicinal products
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is a federal government department that regulates all medicines sold in Australia, including complementary medicines. This includes herbs, vitamins, minerals, nutritional supplements, homeopathic remedies and some aromatherapy products.
The regulation of complementary medicines helps to protect the public by ensuring that therapeutic goods are made according to Good Manufacturing Practice and that any adverse reactions can be investigated.
All therapeutic goods supplied in Australia – whether made in Australia or overseas – must be included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG).
To ensure medicines are safe, it is best to buy Australian-made complementary medicines. For more information on the safety, labelling and regulation of medicines, visit tga.gov.au.
To be included on the ARTG, medicines will be given one of the following two codes depending on the level of risk. This must be displayed on the medicine label.
Aust R (registered)
Because these products are considered higher risk, they are evaluated by the TGA for safety, quality and how well they work. They include all prescription medicines, most over-the-counter medicines and some higher-risk complementary medicines.
Aust L (listed)
These products make low-level therapeutic claims and are reviewed for safety and quality only. They include sunscreen, vitamin and mineral supplements, and herbal medicines.
Regulation of complementary therapists
In Australia, health practitioners, such as doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists and Chinese medicine practitioners, are regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). Each health profession that is part of AHPRA is also represented by a national board. AHPRA ensures that practitioners have the necessary qualifications and training to practise. See ahpra.gov.au for more details.
There are no regulations for other complementary therapists, but several types of complementary therapists are affiliated with a professional organisation. However, membership is voluntary, which means there is no legal obligation to join. Without regulation, there is no legal requirement that a complementary therapist is qualified, trained or experienced.
The following complementary therapists or practitioners have regulatory bodies.
Naturopaths and Western herbalists
These practitioners are not registered by AHPRA. However, most naturopaths and herbalists are registered with the Australian Register of Naturopaths and Herbalists (ARONAH). This is a self-governing body that sets minimum standards of practice for both professions. See aronah.org.
These practitioners are not registered by AHPRA. However, the Australian Register of Homoeopaths (AROH) represents homeopaths who are qualified to practise in line with government standards. The AROH outlines the necessary professional standards for registered homeopaths, who must meet continuing education requirements each year. See aroh.com.au.
To find the right complementary therapy and therapist for you, see a list of general questions to ask.
What can I do if something goes wrong?
If you experience any side effects that you think are from a complementary therapy, stop the treatment and talk to your practitioner about your options. These may include adjusting your treatment, stopping the treatment permanently, seeking a second opinion, or changing your care to another qualified practitioner.
If you are concerned that a practitioner has been negligent, incompetent or unethical, consider the following options:
- If the practitioner belongs to a professional association, contact the association with a formal complaint.
- Report adverse reactions to NPS MedicineWise's Adverse Medicine Events Line on 1300 134 237. You can also tell your doctor, who will report it to the TGA.
- Contact the health care complaints commission in your state or territory (see below for contact details). These organisations protect public health and safety by investigating and resolving complaints about health care providers. They can also prosecute serious complaints.
- If you have a serious reaction, call 000 or go straight to your nearest hospital emergency department.
- Complementary therapies are widely used in Australia. It's estimated that two out of three people with cancer use some type of complementary therapy during or after their cancer treatment. Women are the highest users.
- People use complementary therapies for many reasons including improving quality of life, taking an active role in their care, liking the idea of treating the whole person, and managing side effects.
- There is less scientific evidence available about the safety and effectiveness of complementary therapies than there is for conventional treatments and medicines.
- Always see a qualified practitioner with relevant qualifications who can provide you with an expert opinion and is happy to work with you and your doctor.
- The federal government's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is responsible for regulating therapeutic goods sold in Australia. These include complementary medicines such as minerals, vitamins, herbal medicines, nutritional supplements, homeopathic medicines and some aromatherapy products.
- Tell your doctor and your complementary therapist about all drugs, herbs, nutritional supplements and other remedies you take. Herbs and conventional treatments can sometimes interact, stopping medicines from working properly or causing side effects.
- It is important that you let your doctor know if you are considering using alternative therapies instead of conventional cancer treatments and medicines.
Reviewed by: 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.
2. B Oh et al., “The use and perceived benefits resulting from the use of complementary and alternative medicine by cancer patients in Australia”, Asia-Pacific Journal of Clinical Oncology, vol. 6, no. 4, 2010, pp. 342–49.
3. H Greenlee et al., “Clinical practice guidelines on the evidence-based use of integrative therapies during and after breast cancer treatment”, CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, vol. 67, no. 3, 2017, pp. 194–232.
4. GE Deng et al., “Complementary therapies and integrative medicine in lung cancer: Diagnosis and management of lung cancer, 3rd ed: American College of Chest Physicians evidence-based clinical practice guidelines”, Chest, vol. 143, suppl. 5, 2013, pp. e420S–e436S.