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For many cancer patients, western medicine is the backbone of the cancer treatment plan. Alternative treatments or complementary medicine are often used as an adjunct to these treatment methods.

Alternative treatments can help to comfort the patient, and are associated with certain benefits through research. Very few cancer treatments are without side effects, whether traditional or alternative in nature. Gaining an understanding of what treatment strategies qualify as “alternative” can help patients to make healthy choices about treatment.

Traditional Cancer Treatments

Traditional cancer treatments aim to eliminate or reduce cancers through various interventions. These treatments are backed by extensive studies, trials, and reports that have proven them to be effective in treating cancer. Treatments that fall under this category include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Surgery to remove cancer-related tumors can increase survival rates and improve prognosis for patients. In recent years, researchers have also speculated that surgery may actually increase the risk of metastasis, a far more serious condition than a simple tumor.1 Surgery is often combined with chemotherapy or radiation to prevent this from occurring. Nevertheless, surgical interventions remain an effective way to teach many cancers.

Chemotherapy is also effective but may kill off white blood cells, impairing the immune system.2 Radiation is an effective treatment for many patients, especially when paired with other traditional approaches. This article by CureToday discusses how and why the combination of two or more of these treatment strategies improves outcome.

Alternative Treatments

Most alternative or complementary treatment strategies fall under the category of complementary medicine, alternative medicine, or integrative medicine. Complementary medicine is used alongside traditional medicine to assist with treatment. Alternative medicine refers to any non-traditional treatment that is used instead of traditional medicine. Integrative medicine looks at the mind, body, and spirit as a whole, and focuses on the needs of the patient. Integrative approaches include reiki, yoga, or spiritual healing.


Reiki is a spiritual healing approach that claims to heal patients by managing life force energy in the body. It focuses on using palm healing, or laying on of the hands, to manipulate energies purported to contribute to overall health and healing. Few studies have been able to prove the reliability to of Reiki as compared to traditional treatments. While reiki may not be able to treat cancer directly, it has been identified to promote relaxation3, which can benefit patients indirectly. Studies have also identified that reiki seems to have some ability to help with pain management4. While Reiki may not have a proven ability to resolve cancer, it is a nearly side-effect-free approach to comfort care, and does have value within the field of oncology5. The International Center for Reiki Training (ICRT) provides information and resources on reiki healing. A list of teachers and guides is also available on the website.


Yoga is an ancient form of body-based meditation. Early yoga techniques are thought to have developed as early as 500–200 BCE, when Vedic priests began forming philosophy around the body and how it connected to the mind.

Yoga is practiced by moving the body gently into various positions. Basic yoga poses can help to strengthen the body and soothe the mind, even for those who are not particularly spiritual. Because yoga is non-aerobic, it is also easier to modify for the ill or infirm. Nine studies6 support the use of yoga within integrative cancer treatment programs. The studies outlined benefits to sleep, emotional health, cancer-related distress, disease symptoms, and quality of life. A second report7 lauded the practice for helping patients to cope with treatment and their disease. The magazine Yoga Journal provides online resources on yoga, a yoga-friendly community, guided video downloads, a list of teachers, and many other resources for yoga practitioners.

The National Cancer Insitute provides more information about yoga and cancer here.

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Herbal Medicine

Humans have been using herbs to heal the body and mind for thousands of years. Herbal medicines, when backed my research and information, can provide a helpful adjunct to cancer treatment8. Antioxidants have been shown to be helpful in the treatment and prevention of illness, including cancer. Ginger can be effective for nausea, a common side effect of chemotherapy. Mint tea may be helpful for stomach issues, and chamomile is shown to help with relaxation. Caution is needed before herbal products are used, because few herbal supplements are regulated in the same way that prescription or over-the-counter drugs are. There is potential for herbal products to cause harm if used inappropriately.

“Herbal Medicine, 2nd Edition” is available on PubMed. It provides a brief summary of many popular herbs that are used in complementary care. It provides an overview of the advantages, disadvantages, and obstacles presented to patients who use herbal products. The American Cancer Society’s list of herbs also provides a short summary of the advantages and disadvantages of herbal products. Additionally, Medline Plus has a database of information on herbal medicine available to the public. These resources include articles, studies, and information on which herbal products are used for specific conditions.

Ayurvedic Medicine

Ayurvedic Medicine is based on traditional Indian and Hindu belief that all health is directly tied to imbalance. Studies have found certain Ayurvedic medicines to be contaminated with lead, mercury, and arsenic9. While research has shown limited benefit to some types of Ayurvedic treatments, more research is needed to determine whether Ayurvedic supplements and strategies are truly effective. This article by Cancer Research UK gives a list of Ayurvedic medicines that have shown minimal effectiveness in reducing or eliminating cancers. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine provides a fact-based list of resources on Ayurvedic medicine. Safety, common uses, and references are provided.

Spiritual Approaches

Cancer can cause patients to question their faith or belief system, especially where a terminal diagnosis is given. Spiritual treatments support the beliefs of the patient and their right to question and determine those beliefs. Treatments falling under this category include counseling, religious ceremonies or rituals, engaging in various spiritual or religious practices, or simply learning to be present and mindful. Spiritual approaches may be guided by a provider, like a priest or rabbi, or may be self-directed.

Note that spirituality and religion are not necessarily one and the same; patients can be spiritual or religious, or even a combination of both. Approaching this type of treatment must be done in a way that is sensitive and supportive of the values held by each patient. This article by Doctors Puchalski, Post, and Sloan clarifies the need for boundaries and ethics to protect the spiritual patient.

Although studies into the effectiveness of spiritual treatment within illness are many, the topic is difficult to generalize because it is so individualized and personalized to each patient. One study10 showed that out of 251 patients, 135 patients had reported having spiritual experiences during treatment. This exemplifies the need for spiritual care to be offered to all cancer patients. In this PBS interview with several spiritual care providers, an intimate look can be gained of the challenges presented within cancer. The article makes it very clear that there is no single correct approach to spiritual care for the cancer patient; an individualized approach should be used at all times.

Resources for Patients and Caregivers

Both patients and caregivers have access to many different resources exploring the need for alternative and complementary treatments for cancer. The National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary Medicine provides a list of resources that highlight research, health information, and best case protocols for healthcare teams and patients. Additionally, a list of closed and open clinical trials is provided, each of which focus on complementary medicine. The MD Anderson Cancer Center also provides complementary medicine tools and resources to both patients and their medical care teams. Health professionals have the ability to access patient summaries through the National Cancer Institute. The American Cancer Society also outlines complementary and alternative medicine through a series of articles on their website.

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