Types of complementary therapies

There are many different types of complementary therapies. The type of complementary therapy you choose will depend on many factors, including what your healthcare team recommends and what you hope the therapy will do.

Before starting a complementary therapy, talk to your healthcare team to make sure that it will not interfere or get in the way of your standard cancer treatment.

Acupressure is based on traditional Chinese medicine and the belief that there is vital energy (known as qi) that flows through the body. Disease can block or change the flow. Acupressure involves putting pressure or rubbing one part of the body to help a problem somewhere else in the body. Acupressure may be used to help with nausea or fatigue.

Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine. It is based on the belief that there is vital energy (known as qi) that flows through the body. Disease can block or change the flow. Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into certain parts of the body to help energy flow better. It may help with side effects such as pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, hot flashes, dry mouth or sleeping problems.

Aromatherapy uses highly concentrated essential oils to change your mood or to improve your health. Essential oils may be inhaled or put on the skin. Aromatherapy may help with stress or nausea.

Active visual art therapy is based on the idea that creating art can be healing. Creating art can be a way for you to explore your feelings and concerns and to express yourself. Art therapy may help some people cope with stress and anxiety.

Hypnotherapy involves creating an altered state of awareness in which you are relaxed but have focused attention. It can be used to gain control over certain symptoms or change some behaviours that you want to change. Hypnotherapy may be used to help with nausea or pain. Some people may find that it helps them cope with anticipatory anxiety (anxiety about a future event or situation).

Massage therapy involves manipulating muscles and soft tissues in your body using different degrees of pressure and movement. It can be used to help with stress, anxiety, depression or pain. There are different types of massage. Shiatsu is a type of Japanese massage based on the belief that applying pressure on certain points in the body can restore the body's balanced flow of energy. There is also specialized massage that can help to improve circulation in the lymphatic system, especially for those with lymphedema. This is called manual lymphatic drainage.

Medical cannabis includes products that the Canadian government allows people to access legally for medical reasons. (Recreational cannabis was legalized in October 2018.) Cannabinoids, such as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), are chemicals in cannabis that cause certain effects in the body. They may be used to relieve pain, nausea or vomiting, to lower inflammation, to help with sleep problems or to decrease anxiety. Cannabinoids can be vaporized, inhaled, sprayed under the tongue, taken by mouth using a pill, oil or edible (such as gummies or baked goods) or inserted in the rectum using suppositories.

Meditation is a therapy based on the connection between the mind and the body and how the health of one affects the health of the other. It involves focusing on the present moment and becoming aware of sensations in the body and your feelings and thoughts. Meditation can help with anxiety, depression, stress, sleep problems and pain.

Music therapy uses music to help people express and cope with difficult feelings. It may include playing instruments or singing, composing music or listening to music. Music therapy can encourage contact and communication with other people and help ease anxiety, depression and some physical symptoms.

Reflexology is a type of hand or foot massage. It is based on the belief that different areas of the feet and hands are connected to different parts of the body. It may be helpful for relaxation and reducing stress.

Reiki is a Japanese technique for relaxation and reducing stress. It is based on the belief that there is energy in the body and that you can use the hands to help improve the flow of energy through the body.

Tai chi and qi gong come from traditional Chinese medicine. Both use slow, focused body movements, guided imagery and breathing to improve health and well-being. Tai chi and qi gong can improve quality of life. They may also help with fatigue, sleep problems and depression.

Yoga uses a series of movements and poses that are often combined with breathing techniques and meditation to allow a deeper connection to one's self. It focuses on joining the body, mind, breath and spirit together in harmony and focus, without mental distractions. Yoga can improve mood, physical well-being and overall quality of life. It can also be used to help with sleep problems, fatigue, pain and nausea.

Expert review and references

  • Lynda G Balneaves, RN, PhD
  • Lim Howard, MD, PhD, FRCPC
  • Dugald Seely, ND, MSc, FABNO

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

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