Complementary therapies in the management of cancer
Generally, standard medical treatments include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormonal therapies, or targeted therapies. Complementary therapies are used in addition to conventional cancer treatment to reinforce the immune system, relieve symptoms, and enhance the effectiveness of conventional therapies.
The National Cancer Institute defines complementary therapies as “treatments used along with standard medical treatments but are not considered as standard treatments”.
The following examples of complementary therapies have at least a moderate level of evidence of symptom relief as reported by credible sources including Cancer Council Australia.
Acupuncture is an ancient form of Chinese medicine. This therapy uses thin, solid needles inserted at discrete points and regions on the body. Acupuncture can reduce nausea and pain and may be helpful in managing chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy (weakness, numbness and pain usually felt in the hands and feet), fatigue, anxiety and dry mouth.
Meditation and mindfulness
Meditation and mindfulness are complementary therapies used by many to reduce stress and tension in their everyday lives. It can improve sleep, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain, muscle wasting and enhance immune function.
“The positive attitude part of it is important. The psychological support is essential, but there’s also good literature out there, that mindfulness and relaxation therapies are of benefit. It’s probably of benefit in everyone’s life, but even more so in patients with pancreatic cancer.”
Mehrdad, pancreatic surgeon
Stress and distress can be overwhelming. Techniques that can help you be in the present moment can help you manage these negative feelings.
Mindful relaxation is a way of learning to calm the mind and the body using various relaxation and breathing techniques, meditation and mindfulness exercises.
It helps manage thoughts and feelings by focusing on what is happening in the present moment. The exercises can involve focusing on your breath, counting your breaths in and out slowly, or seeing particular images and scenes in your mind’s eye (called guided visualisation).
Anyone can try mindfulness and meditation. You can join groups or go to classes to learn some of these mind/body techniques. There are also meditation and mindfulness apps available on your smartphone which may be useful, such as:
“An activity that I have been doing for some time is meditation. It helps me to look at things objectively and then to separate out issues that are not important. It helps me to sleep, work and think about things. It’s totally supported me.”
Graham, 56yrs living with pancreatic cancer
Music therapy and its benefits in cancer care
A cancer diagnosis is a feared and serious life event that can cause stress in individuals and families. It can disrupt social, emotional, and physical well-being and can result in a range of emotions including anger, fear, and sadness. Music therapy can be an effective way to find support through your cancer treatment process.
While music does not affect the disease, it can help improve mood and can sometimes make a difference in the way you cope with and feel about your disease.
It can help:
- promote wellness
- improve physical and emotional well-being and
- improve quality of life.
Music therapy, as a part of a complementary medicine program, can have many benefits for cancer patients. Some studies show that interactive music therapy techniques such as instrumental improvisation and singing, and receptive music therapy techniques, which include listening to recorded or live music, can help:
- improve mood,
- decrease stress, pain, anxiety levels
- enhance relaxation.
A Registered Music Therapist (RMTS) can work as part of your allied health team in the hospital setting. They provide group or individual sessions where they develop music programs to meet specific needs. You don’t need to be a musician or have any musical knowledge to participate.
Some cancer centres, such as Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre provide Musical Therapy sessions at no cost, others charge a small fee for one-on-one or group sessions. You can also book private Music Therapy session with an RMT through the Australian Music Therapy Association via their search function. A number of these centres also offer video streaming of group sessions if you are unable to attend in person due to location, health or COVID-19 concerns.
Contact your nearest Cancer Centre to discover more about available Music Therapy Programs and other complementary therapies.
Massage can help reduce pain, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression, nausea and improve quality of life.
Massage therapy involves kneading, moving and applying varying pressure to muscles, tendons and soft tissues. Massage induces relaxation that can reduce symptoms of stress, pain, fatigue and depression.
For more information about using massage as a way of treating symptoms of cancer refer to the Cancer Council Australia Massage and Cancer Guide.
There are many different types of massage and touch therapies including reflexology, aromatherapy and reiki. These gentle styles of massage (with adaptations) are often recommended and safe for people with cancer.
“Meditation was something that I got heavily involved in prior to my Whipple’s operation and when I was in hospital. I’d listen to lots of relaxation and meditation apps. And when I came home from hospital I had a lot of trouble sleeping so they really helped me. And even now if I have trouble sleeping I connect to a meditation app. They’re really helpful.”
Natalie, 46yrs with pancreatic cancer
Oncology massage therapists have been trained to work safely with people with a history or diagnosis of cancer. Oncology massage can help to reduce pain and help you to feel better emotionally and physically.
“The qualified oncology masseuse would gently massage areas around Graeme’s stomach and he would feel release of pressure. He would go once a week and he reckons out of everything that was the best thing.”
Wendy, wife and carer of Graeme with pancreatic cancer
Aromatherapy massage uses essential oils extracted from plants to balance and promote wellbeing.
Reflexology involves pressure to parts of the hands and feet which can relieve pain and promote wellness, in other parts of the body. Can reduce anxiety and pain and help improve quality of life particularly in palliative care patients.
Reiki therapy is a gentle touch therapy that involves placing the therapist’s hands on or above the patient’s body to promote relaxation, reduce stress and anxiety, and increase energy levels and well-being.
The “therapeutic use of essential oils” to “bring about physiological and emotional changes”. Can improve sleep and aid relaxation and improve quality of life particularly in palliative care patients.
Naturopathy provides a holistic approach to health, taking into consideration the body, mind and emotions and how these elements interact with each other to affect bodily function. Naturopathy combines diet and lifestyle modifications with herbal medicine and nutritional supplements to improve health outcomes.
Naturopathy can provide benefit to oncology patients alongside conventional treatment by:
- enhancing positive interactions and potentiating sensitivity of cancer cells to conventional treatments
- reduce the side effects of treatment and assist in the completion of your recommended conventional treatment plan
- optimising health and well-being and improving quality of life
- working towards reducing recurrence following active treatment.
Often described as ‘meditation in motion’, tai chi is a low-impact exercise method involving slow movements and breath that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of fitness level. Can relieve pain, improve flexibility and strength and reduces stress.
Pilates, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais
While studies with cancer patients are limited, these forms of practitioner led active exercise are generally considered to be beneficial for improving breathing, strength, flexibility, mobility, fitness and general wellbeing.
Visualisation or guided imagery
Tapes, scripts, or an instructor “guide the imagination toward a relaxed, focused state” – claimed to control some symptoms caused by cancer or cancer treatments. Can help reduce pain and anxiety, nausea and vomiting.
Spirituality is a broad concept which has many perspectives and can be used in management of pain, stress and self-esteem. Generally, it includes a sense of connecting to something bigger than ourselves and can involve looking for meaning in life. It is a universal human experience—something that touches us all.
Some people find their spiritual life is linked to a church, temple, a higher being, prayer, the practice of yoga or meditation.
Others find meaning and purpose through connection to nature or art. For Indigenous Australians, country (the land) has a strong spiritual connection.
Writing or journaling are also ways of connecting to your experiences and the world around you, and have been shown to improve mood, reduce stress and anxiety and improve sleep.
Your own definition of spirituality may change through your life, adapting to your experiences and relationships – sometimes people with a life-limiting illness feel the need to connect with their spiritual self.