Complementary therapies

To understand how a complementary therapy may be used, it helps to understand what we mean by conventional cancer treatments and complementary therapies.

Conventional cancer treatments

Conventional cancer treatments are the treatments currently accepted and widely used in the Canadian healthcare system. They are sometimes called mainstream cancer treatments. Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are all examples of conventional cancer treatments. These treatments are given by healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses and radiation therapists. They destroy cancer cells or treat them so they don’t grow and spread.

Good scientific research has shown that they are safe and effective against cancer.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies do not treat the cancer itself. The purpose of a complementary therapy is to help improve your overall health and well-being. These therapies help you cope physically and emotionally with conventional cancer treatments. For example, having acupuncture to help with nausea caused by chemotherapy is a complementary therapy. So is going to yoga to help you feel more relaxed and sleep better while you’re having treatment.

Research has shown that a number of complementary therapies can be used safely while having conventional cancer treatments. These therapies can help lessen treatment side effects such as nausea or fatigue. But just as importantly, they can help you cope with stress, anxiety and other challenges you may face during your cancer journey.

Studies have shown that many people living with cancer have used at least one complementary therapy as part of their cancer treatment. Some people feel that using a complementary therapy helps them gain a sense of control and to feel more involved with their healthcare. Others feel that complementary therapies help improve their quality of life.

Integrative cancer care

Integrative cancer care is an approach that combines conventional cancer treatments and complementary therapies throughout the cancer journey. It’s based on the idea that as long as you’re watched carefully for what happens when the treatments are given at the same time, conventional cancer treatments and complementary therapies can work well together. With integrative cancer care, people from both approaches are part of your healthcare team. Everyone on your healthcare team can make suggestions for the best treatment options for you.

Most cancer treatment centres in Canada don’t have formal integrative cancer care programs. But many cancer centres do offer some complementary therapies. For example, some centres offer meditation to people having chemotherapy because it can help reduce anxiety. If your cancer treatment centre doesn’t offer complementary therapies, you can still create your own integrative approach by finding and working with complementary therapy practitioners in your community.

What about alternative therapies?

People often use the terms complementary therapy and alternative therapy as if they mean the same thing. But complementary therapies and alternative therapies are very different.

Complementary therapies are used together with conventional cancer treatments. Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional cancer treatments. For example, if you meditate before radiation therapy to help with anxiety, you’re using meditation as a complementary therapy. But if you choose not to have radiation therapy and meditate instead because you think meditation will cure your cancer, you’re using meditation as an alternative therapy.

It may be claimed that an alternative therapy can cure cancer. But good scientific research has not yet shown that alternative therapies are effective or safe in treating cancer. Choosing to use an alternative therapy can have serious health effects, such as the cancer spreading or getting worse. Delaying conventional cancer treatment to use an alternative therapy can lower the chances of treating the cancer successfully.

You have the right to choose

You have the right to choose whether or not to take the treatment your doctor recommends. You can accept or refuse some or all of the conventional, complementary and alternative therapies offered to you.

Refusing to have conventional cancer treatment is a personal decision. If you postpone or refuse conventional cancer treatment and try an alternative therapy, keep in contact with your healthcare team. Your healthcare team may not agree with your decision, but it’s important for someone to keep track of how you’re doing. You may decide to use conventional cancer treatment later.

The Canadian Cancer Society believes that people with cancer must make treatment decisions with the best available information, including knowledge of what the treatment can, or cannot, do and what the side effects may be. Treatments that offer the best hope of success are backed up by good scientific evidence.