What are complementary therapies?

Complementary therapies may be used along with standard (conventional) cancer treatments. They do not treat the cancer itself. They may help improve your overall health and well-being, or they can help you cope with side effects of standard cancer treatments. Examples of complementary therapy include acupuncture to help with nausea from chemotherapy or going to yoga to help you feel more relaxed and sleep better while you're going through a stressful time.

Standard cancer treatments

Standard cancer treatments are the treatments that are currently accepted and used in the Canadian healthcare system to treat cancer. You may also hear them described as conventional treatments or standard care. Research tells us that standard cancer treatments are safe and effective against cancer. They are proven to stop cancer cells from growing and spreading.

Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy and hormone therapy are all examples of standard cancer treatments. These treatments are managed through a cancer treatment centre and given by healthcare professionals such as oncologists, nurses and radiation therapists.

Integrative cancer care

Integrative cancer care combines standard cancer treatments with complementary therapies that have been found to be effective and safe. It’s based on the idea that as long as you're followed carefully to see what happens when they are given at the same time, standard 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 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.

Alternative therapies

Alternative therapies are not the same as complementary therapies. They are used instead of standard cancer treatments. An example would be using a special diet to treat cancer instead of chemotherapy drugs prescribed by your doctor.

Some alternative therapies may claim to cure cancer. Research has not 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.

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 standard, complementary and alternative therapies offered to you.

Refusing to have standard cancer treatment is a personal decision. Delaying standard cancer treatment to use an alternative therapy can lower the chances of treating the cancer successfully. If you postpone or refuse standard cancer treatment and try an alternative therapy, keep in contact with your healthcare team. Your healthcare team may not be comfortable with your decision, but it’s important for someone to keep track of how you’re doing. You may decide to use standard 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 scientific evidence.

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.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on cancer.ca, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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