Complementary Therapies are increasingly being combined with standard medical cancer treatments.

A nationwide survey revealed that Australians have, over recent years, had an increasing tendency to use Complementary Therapies. In this study, the adult Australian used at least one Complementary Therapy in the last 12-months and visited Complementary Therapy practitioners as often as they visited medical practitioners, 69.2 million to 69.3 million, respectively.

In 2007 about 4.13 billion Australian dollars were spent in Complementary Therapies.

comp therapies

What are Complementary Therapies?

The National Cancer Institute defines Complementary Therapies as “treatments used along with standard medical treatments, but are not considered as standard treatments”.

Generally, standard medical treatments include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormonal therapies, or targeted therapies.

Complementary Therapies are used in addition to conventional treatment to reinforce the immune system, relieve symptoms, and enhance the effectiveness of conventional therapies.

The following examples of complimentary therapies have at least a moderate level of evidence of symptom relief as reported by credible sources such as Cancer Council Victoria, or Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre:

  • Acupuncture: An ancient form of Chinese medicine, this therapy uses thin, solid needles inserted at discrete points and regions on the body. Can reduce nausea and pain.
  • Relaxation therapy, Yoga and meditation: Used by many people to reduce stress and tension in their every day lives. Can improve sleep, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue and muscle wasting.
  • Art and Music therapy: Can aid focused attention which aids relaxation, pain reduction and the expression of feelings.
  • Massage: Can help reduce pain, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression and nausea.
  • Reflexology: a foot massage that “promotes wellness in other areas of the body”. Can reduce anxiety and pain and help improve quality of life particularly in palliative care patients.
  • Aromatherapy: 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.
  • Tai chi: Can relieve pain, improve flexibility and strength and reduces stress.
  • Support group programs: peer groups or one-to-one support – often talking about the issues relieves much of the stress associated as does being part of a larger group.
  • 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.
  • Counseling, Prayer and Meditation: used in management of pain, stress and self-esteem.

Why are there not enough scientific studies on Complementary Therapies?

The lack of proper scientific studies in alternative treatments is due to the high cost of large, carefully controlled medical studies. Large pharmaceutical companies that develop and sell drugs fund most of these expensive studies, leaving trials for Complementary Therapies with fewer resources.

In the U.S., the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), formerly National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), was established to encourage research and trials on Complementary Therapies and make the information readily available for public use.

Locally, the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Council (NBOCC) aids ongoing medical studies on Complementary Therapies.

Which Therapies help in Cancer?

A public warning was issued against Complementary Therapies, as “some may not be recommended during treatment” because they could potentially “interfere with (standard medical) treatments” and may even “worsen side-effects”.

Most Complementary Therapies have not been scientifically tested and proven in medical trials. In fact, some alternative treatments may even cause more harm than good when used in place instead of the standard treatment.

Even with warnings against possible adverse effects of some Complementary Therapies, a study in 2010 showed that 2 out of 3 Australians with cancer used at least one form of Complementary Therapy while in and after standard cancer treatment.

Cancer Council Australia observed that people with cancer mostly use the following list of Complementary Therapies (along with standard treatment):

  • Lifestyle approaches – a healthy diet and regular exercise gives relief from fatigue and improves well-being
  • Mind body therapies – hypnosis, visualisation, and meditation boosts the mind’s ability to control bodily functions resulting to a control of symptoms
  • Talking therapies – one-on-one or group interaction that offers emotional support. Peer support programs are used by family members and people with cancer to connect to a trained volunteer with the same experience.
  • Touch therapies – Massage, acupuncture, reflexology and aromatherapy

Are Complementary Therapies for me?

First, gather as much information as you can about the therapy. Cancer Council Australia provides a set of questions to help you assess the Complementary therapy, ask:

  • “Is this therapy specifically used for cancer patients or for people with other diseases?
  • Are there any side-effects?
  • Who will be involved in delivering the therapy?
  • What are their qualifications and are they registered with a professional organisation?
  • What are the costs of the therapy and are they covered by my health insurance provider?
  • What does the therapy aim to achieve?
  • Will this therapy affect my conventional medical treatment?”

If you have questions and concerns, contact your doctor. He or she can aid you in understanding what risks and benefits are involved before you try any Complementary Therapy treatment.

It is recommended that you not change or stop your standard treatment without discussing your decision with your primary physician.

If have any medical condition, take prescription medicine, or are pregnant, you should not try a therapy without consulting your doctor first. Update your doctor about any Complementary Therapies you are using (including the use of herbs and other dietary supplements).

Should you need more information on Complementary Therapies, reliable information can also be obtained from your local state or territory Cancer Councils.

Cancer Council Helpline 13 11 20

Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm

Here are other agencies and topics on information about Complementary Therapies:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

Using Trusted Resources by National Cancer Institute

Cancer Council’s Understanding Complementary Therapies: A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends


This article is to provide information only. Pancare Foundation does not recommend replacing any standard treatment with Complementary Therapies. However in using any form of Complementary Therapy, you should always feel comfortable, safe, and respected.

In case you have any unexpected and undesirable effect from any Complementary Therapy, seek a doctor and report the event to the Department of Health’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

Further Reading - References & Resources

  1. Relaxation Therapy. Blue Pages Depression Directory: 2009.
  2. Xue CC, Zhang AL, Lin V, Da Costa C, Story DF. Complementary and alternative medicine use in Australia: a national population-based survey[Abstract]. J Altern Complement Med: 2007; (6):643-50. (accessed March 2016)
  3. Acupuncture Therapy. UTS Acupuncture Clinic.
  4. Guided Imagery. WebMD: 2014. overview
  5. Reflexology. Better Health Channel. Victoria State Government, Health and Human Services: 2015
  6. Aromatherapy. International Aromatherapy & Aromatic Medicine Association, Inc.: 2016
  7. Aromatheraphy. Better Health Channel. Victoria State Government, Health and Human Services: 2015
  8. Cassileth B, Deng G. Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Cancer. The Oncologist: 2005; 9 (1), pp.80-89 doi: 10.1634/theoncologist.9-1-80 Full Text:
  9. Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Johns Hopkins Medicine,P00189/
  10. Cancer Support Groups. Australian Government, Cancer Australia: 2010.
  11. National Cancer Institute. Complementary and Alternative Medicine
  12. Complementary and alternative therapies. Australian Government, Cancer Australia: 2010.
  13. Complementary and alternative medicine. The Mayo Clinic Staff, Mayo Clinic, Healthy Lifestyle, Consumer Health: 2014.
  14. Visualisation (guided imagery). Cancer Research UK: 2015.
  15. Alternative cancer diets. Cancer Research UK: 2014.
  16. Devine EC, Westlake SK. The effects of psychoeducational care provided to adults with cancer: meta-analysis of 116 studies. Oncol Nurs Forum: 1995; 22(9), pp. 1369-81.
  17. Immunotherapy: Using the Immune System To Treat Cancer. NIH National Cancer Institute: 2015.
  18. Moynihan T. I’ve heard that vitamin C might be an alternative cancer treatment. What can you tell me about it? The Mayo Clinic: 2014.
  19. Complementary and Alternative Therapies. Cancer Council Australia: 2015.
  20. The National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health: 2016.\
  21. Oh B, Butow P, Mullan B, Beale P, Pavlakis N The use and perceived benefits resulting from the use of complementary and alternative medicine by cancer patients in Australia. Asia-Pacific Journal of Clinical Oncology: 2010. 6, pp342–349. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-7563.2010.01329.x Full Text:
  22. Using Trusted Sources. NIH The National Cancer Institute: 2015.
  23. Understanding Complementary Therapies: A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends. Cancer Council: 2012.
  24. Reporting medicine and vaccine adverse events. The Australian Government, Department of Health Therapeutic Goods Administration: 2016.