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Complementary therapies


Making informed decisions

Sometimes it is difficult to decide on the type of treatment to have. You may feel that everything is happening too fast. Discuss with your doctor how soon your treatment should start, and take as much time as you can before making a decision.

Understanding the disease, the available treatments and possible side effects can help you weigh up the pros and cons of different treatments and make a well-informed decision that's based on your personal values. You may also want to discuss the options with your doctor, complementary therapist, friends and family.

You have the right to accept or refuse any treatment offered. Some people with more advanced cancer choose treatment even if it offers only a small benefit for a short period of time. Others want to make sure the benefits outweigh the side effects so they have the best possible quality of life.

Deciding whether to use complementary therapies and which ones to choose is a similar process to deciding on a course of conventional treatment. Some people with cancer may feel pressure from friends and family to use complementary therapies, and may feel guilty if the therapy they choose doesn't offer any benefit.

Some people will consider complementary therapies at the time of their diagnosis; others will not think about using them until later, perhaps as part of their recovery or supportive care.

Cancer Council warns against delaying or replacing conventional treatment or medicine with a complementary or alternative therapy.

Choosing a complementary therapy

Weigh up the different types of therapies

  • Think about what you expect to gain from using complementary therapies.
  • Consider the possible side effects and safety issues of complementary therapies, how these might affect you, and how they may interact with your conventional treatments.
  • Consider whether you prefer to use complementary therapies with strong scientific evidence, or whether anecdotal evidence is enough for you.
  • Ask about how much the various therapies cost.

Find out more about different therapies

  • Gather information and consider whether it's accurate, up to date, and comes from a reliable source.
  • Discuss the issue with your family and friends.
  • Talk to other people who have tried these treatments, for example, at a support group or through Cancer Council Online Community.
  • Contact a natural therapy association to find practitioners in your area or to check their qualifications and experience.
  • Borrow books from a library or read about therapies on recommended websites.

Discuss your concerns

  • Talk to your practitioner or doctor about the therapies you would like to try, and whether there are any potential interactions or side effects when they are used with your conventional treatments.
  • Seek a second opinion if you are not happy with the information you are given.

Finding a complementary therapist

Contacting a professional association is a good starting point for finding a therapist. Your family or friends or support group may also be able to recommend a therapist. Some registered health professionals (e.g. doctors, nurses, pharmacists) are also qualified in a complementary therapy, such as nutritional and herbal medicine, hypnotherapy, counselling, acupuncture or massage. Some complementary therapies may be offered at cancer treatment centres, or your centre can recommend practitioners with experience treating people with cancer in your local area.

What to consider when choosing a therapist

  • Confirm that the therapist is willing to communicate with your doctors about your conventional treatment, especially if you are using remedies that may interfere with this treatment.
  • Check whether the therapist would like to see a list of the medicines you're taking or your conventional treatment plan. This reduces the risk of them dispensing remedies or other treatments that might interact with your conventional medicines or treatments.
  • Keep a record of the treatments given and medicines or supplements you have been prescribed.
  • Write down any questions you have or use the question checklist.
  • Take someone with you to appointments to offer support, get involved in the discussion, take notes or simply listen.
  • See the glossary if there is a word you don't understand.

Can I help myself or should I see a professional?

One of the reasons people with cancer use complementary therapies is because it helps them take an active role in their health.

Some simple ways people can help themselves, without the guidance of a professional, include learning gentle massage or acupressure techniques, adding essential oils to their bath, meditating, or drinking herbal tea.

Some people may consider self-prescribing herbs or nutritional supplements. Although this may seem like a cheaper alternative, it may not be safe. The benefits of seeing a professional complementary therapist are that they:

  • are qualified in the therapy or medicine you are considering
  • have an objective view of your case have experience treating a range of conditions and may
  • have treated other people with cancer
  • are able to liaise with your clinicians, as necessary
  • can prepare a tailor-made treatment plan and dispense remedies based on your individual needs, if they are qualified to do so
  • can help you avoid the health risks of using complementary therapies that may interact with conventional cancer treatment.

Many websites sell a range of herbs or nutritional supplements that may be less expensive than those you can buy in Australia. However, products purchased from overseas are not covered by the same safety and quality regulations that apply to products sold in Australia.

Telling your doctor about using a therapy

Studies show that most people with cancer who use complementary therapies don't tell their primary health care providers. This is because they worry their doctors will disapprove.

The use of complementary therapies is growing, so many primary health care providers are now better informed about them and are often supportive of their use. Some doctors and nurses have also been trained in complementary therapies and are able to give you information about them. Complementary therapies are also being offered by some cancer treatment centres.

To keep yourself safe, consider the following:

Talk to your doctor

It is important to discuss your interest or use of complementary therapies with your doctors and nurses, even if they aren't supportive. It allows them to consider your safety and wellbeing.

For example, your surgeon, oncologist or radiation therapist may have specific concerns, such as not using particular creams or medicines at certain times during your treatment. If you are taking herbs or nutritional supplements, they may suggest you stop taking these before, during or after particular treatments.

Talk to your complementary health practitioner

It is also important to tell your complementary therapist that you have cancer, and inform them of the treatment or medicines you're having or taking. This can help you avoid any risky treatment and drug interactions.

Talking with others

Aside from your doctor, you may want to discuss the different complementary therapies you're considering using with family or friends, a cancer support group or Cancer Council 13 11 20. Talking it over can help you sort out the course of action that best suits you.

A second opinion

Just as you may want to get a second opinion from another specialist about your conventional cancer treatment and medicine, you might want to see a few different complementary therapists to compare how they would approach your treatment. After consulting with a complementary therapist, you may decide you don't want to continue seeing them because you are not sure they can offer you the right supportive treatment for your individual case.

Getting a second opinion can be a valuable part of your overall decision-making process. It can help you feel comfortable about any complementary treatments you choose to have.

Costs

Consultation costs for complementary therapies vary depending on the training and experience of the practitioner, the length of the consultation, and the treatment provided. The standard fee in 2018 for a private complementary health practitioner is about $80 to $140 per hour, which does not include the cost of herbal remedies, essential oils, nutritional supplements or other products.

Naturopaths, herbalists and homeopaths may dispense remedies that they mix for you, or they may sell you pre-made nutritional, herbal or homeopathic supplements. Prices vary depending on the type of remedy and the ingredients, strength and quantity. Consider speaking to a few practitioners to compare costs.

If you have private health insurance, check whether you are eligible for a rebate on the cost of the consultation with a complementary therapist. Most funds do not provide a rebate on the cost of any remedies or supplements that you purchase. Some complementary therapies can be claimed under Medicare if you have a referral from your GP as part of a Chronic Disease Management Plan.

Taking part in a clinical trial

Funding for clinical trials or research into the effectiveness and safety of complementary therapies is limited. Because of the growing popularity of complementary therapies in Australia, the National Institute of Complementary Medicine was established by the federal government to promote research in this area of health care.

Some universities and hospitals are also involved in research and clinical trials. Your hospital or support group may provide opportunities for you to take part in clinical trials and research involving the use of complementary therapies.

Before deciding whether or not to join a clinical trial, discuss the questions below with your doctor and a qualified complementary therapist.

  • What treatments are being tested and why?
  • What tests are involved?
  • Can I take part in the trial while having conventional treatment?
  • What are the possible risks or side effects?
  • What are the possible benefits?
  • How long will the trial last?
  • What will I do if problems occur while I am in the trial?
  • Has an independent ethics committee approved the trial?

If you join a clinical trial for conventional cancer treatment, it is important to check whether using any complementary therapies could impact on the trial results. Speak to your doctor and/or complementary therapist for information.

If you decide to take part in a clinical trial, you can withdraw at any time. For more information, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or visit australiancancertrials.gov.au.

"I was on a clinical trial when I decided to see a naturopath, who suggested I take coconut oil. The doctor on the trial said it shouldn't have an impact on my other medication." - Alan (multiple myeloma)

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