Choosing a complementary therapy and practitioner

It’s your choice to use – or not to use – a complementary therapy. The tips below can help you make a safe and informed decision.

Ask your healthcare team for help.

Your healthcare team may be able to recommend complementary therapies to help you cope with side effects. Ask for suggestions or referrals to qualified complementary therapy practitioners who have worked with people with cancer. Your treatment centre may even offer therapies that could help.

Look for credible and unbiased information about the therapy.

Do your research before trying any complementary therapy. Good sources of information are evidence-based websites, your hospital or cancer treatment centre or an integrative cancer care centre. The complementary therapy practitioner should also be able to give you information about the therapy and explain how it might help you during your cancer journey.

Evaluate the research evidence for the therapy.

Evaluating information about therapies and scientific studies may be new to you. While we have learned more about complementary therapies, we still need more information from well-designed studies to understand how well they work. Have there been any randomized clinical trials that compare the therapy to standard treatments? Do the studies look at a large number of people over a long period of time? Are there several different studies that have the same or similar results?

Decide what your goals are for the complementary therapy.

What do you hope the therapy will to do for you? For example, do you hope it will help with nausea or reduce stress? Are you being realistic about what you expect from the therapy? Are you comfortable with the therapy and the way it is given?

Ask about the qualifications of the complementary therapy practitioner.

What type of training have they had? Did they go to school or apprentice with a qualified practitioner? Are they a member of a professional organization or association? Do they have a licence if the therapy is regulated? Do they have experience treating people with cancer? Are you comfortable with the practitioner? Is the practitioner willing to talk to and work with your conventional cancer treatment healthcare team?

Look carefully at what the therapy claims to do.

Is the therapy meant to help with specific side effects or concerns, such as helping to reduce anxiety? Or does it promise to completely erase all side effects or symptoms? Be aware that complementary therapies do not treat the cancer itself. Good scientific research hasn’t yet shown that they are an effective treatment for cancer, but there is some evidence that some complementary therapies may help you cope with side effects of treatment.

Find out about possible side effects of the therapy.

What effects could the therapy have on your conventional cancer treatment? Be sure to find out whether the complementary therapy you are thinking about is safe and effective when used with your conventional cancer treatment and any other health issues you have.

Find out what the complementary therapy will cost.

Some complementary therapies can be very expensive. Complementary therapies aren’t usually covered by provincial health plans. Private health insurance plans may cover certain therapies. Can you and your family afford the therapy? Also think about the time and energy that you would spend going to appointments, making lifestyle changes or managing the therapy.

Be open and honest with everyone on your healthcare team.

Your doctor needs to know if you are using, or thinking about using, any complementary therapies. It’s also very important that your complementary therapy practitioner knows that you have cancer and the treatments you’re having.

Expert review and references

  • Ades T, Alteri R, Gansler T, et al (eds.). American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Complementary & Alternative Cancer Therapies. 2nd ed. Georgia: American Cancer Society; 2009.
  • Decker G . Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies in integrative oncology. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B. (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 24: 626-654.
  • Levine ML . Conventional and complementary therapies: a tale of two research standards?. Journal of Clinical Oncology. American Society of Clinical Oncology; 2010:
  • National Cancer Institute. Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) (Patient). National Cancer Institute; 2014:
  • Ulbricht C, Cohen L, Lee R . Complementary, alternative, and integrative therapies in cancer care. Devita, V. T., Jr., Lawrence, T. S., & Rosenberg, S. A. Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Willams, Wilkins; 2011: 181.