Our guide to complementary therapies explains what they are and how they can help. We've also listed some recommended options that may help during and after cancer treatment.
What are complementary therapies?
- Complementary therapies - practices used alongside conventional treatments
- Alternative medicines - practices used instead of conventional treatments
People with cancer can use complementary therapies alongside conventional medical treatments. They can help you feel better and can your improve quality of life. They may also help you to cope better with the symptoms caused by cancer, or the side effects caused by cancer treatment.
Always talk to your doctor before using any complementary therapies as they are not all suitable for everyone.
Cancer Research UK has stated researchers estimate that 30 to 40 out of every 100 people (30-40%) with cancer use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
What types are there?
There are a variety of complementary therapies that someone could use alongside conventional treatment.
The list below gives some examples of different types of complementary therapies:
Aromatherapy uses essential oils such as lavender or rosemary to improve health and wellbeing. Cancer research UK have stated that there is some evidence that this type of therapy could help with general well-being, anxiety and some side effects of cancer treatment.
In acupuncture, sterile, hair-thin needles are inserted into specific points on the skin, called "acupuncture points," and then gently moved. Studies have shown that acupuncture can help with a variety of side effects of cancer treatment, including relieving fatigue, controlling hot flushes, decreasing nausea and also, lessening pain.
Massage is a therapy where there is pressure applied to parts of the body. This can be by stroking, kneading, tapping or pressing. Massage aims to relax you mentally and physically by concentrating on the muscles, the soft tissues, or on acupuncture points.
Massage can help boost your mood, enhance your sleep and improve your wellbeing. Cancer Research UK have reported evidence to help support these benefits.
Reiki is a type of energy healing, which aims to help you relax and ease stress. A reiki therapist aims to guide and balance the flow of energy in and around your body. Therapists use gentle touch, or placing their hands near your body to guide the energy around your body - gentle touch in a calm setting can be relaxing. People with cancer say they feel more relaxed after using therapies like reiki. Cancer Research UK say studies suggest that this is often because a therapist spends time with the person.
Yoga has been around for centuries and can be useful for people who experience anxiety and depression, but also can have positive effects after a diagnosis of cancer.
Yoga teachers promote it as a natural way to help you relax and cope with stress, anxiety and depression. Yoga can help to boost your mood and improve your wellbeing.
Some people with cancer say it helps calm their mind so that they can cope better with their illness. Yoga also helps to reduce symptoms and side effects such as pain, tiredness, sleep problems and depression. Yoga can sometimes help you to move around more quickly and easily after surgery for cancer.
People practice meditation to help their minds and bodies become calm and redirect your thoughts to become relaxed. You can use it to increase awareness of yourself and your surroundings. Many people think of it as a way to reduce stress and develop concentration. Meditation can help you connect with your breath to bring you into the present moment and bring calmness to the mind. This is beneficial to cancer patients, helping to reduce their stress and anxiety.
What are the benefits?
The benefits of complementary therapies are mostly anecdotal evidence. Below are some of the benefits cancer patients have found from complementary therapies:
- Providing relaxation, and reducing stress and anxiety
- Reducing side effects
- Improving sleep
- Improving posture and skeleto-muscular problems - eg. post-surgery
- Getting a feel good factor
- Feeling more in control - feel like they are helping themselves
- Having a safe place to talk openly
Recommended resources and further reading:
- Breast Cancer Now: Five poses to get you started with yoga after breast cancer
- Heathline: The Benefits of Guided Imagery and How To Do It
- Maggies: Relaxation and breathing exercises
- Breast Cancer.org: Reiki
- Cancer Research UK: Music therapy and cancer
- Heathline: Try This: Ear Acupuncture