Complementary Therapies and Clinical Trials

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2017

Complementary therapies can help reduce symptoms and side effects of standard cancer treatment. People have been using some of these therapies for centuries. But the research on them is fairly new. Today, cancer centers and government organizations research complementary therapies through clinical trials. Clinical trials are research studies involving people.

Researching complementary therapies

A clinical trial uses an intense scientific process to study a specific therapy. This helps doctors find out if it is helpful, not helpful, or harmful to people with cancer. For example, clinical trials have shown that:

  • Acupuncture relieves pain associated with cancer. It also reduces nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.

  • The herb St. John’s wort can make some chemotherapies more toxic or less effective.

Clinical trials have also shown that alternative methods do not help people with cancer. For instance, one trial researched adding shark cartilage extract to standard lung cancer treatment. It found that this alternative method did not lengthen patients’ lives.

Joining a complementary therapy clinical trial

If you want to join a clinical trial for a complementary therapy, consider these tips:

  • Talk with your health care team about which clinical trials might be best for you.

  • Find out the trial’s goal. Some studies about a complementary therapy may aim to prevent cancer. Other trials may aim to see if a therapy lengthens a person’s life or improves quality of life.

  • Learn about the informed consent process. During this process, your health care team should:

    • Describe all of your possible treatment options.

    • Explain how the study will use the complementary therapy and how the clinical trial treatment differs from the standard treatment.

    • List the risks and benefits of the therapy and the treatments, tests, and/or procedures you will need.

    • Discuss your option to leave the clinical trial at any time.

  • Discuss all complementary therapies with your health care team. Some therapies may not work well with other medicines or cancer treatments. Or they may have other side effects.

Finding a complementary therapy clinical trial

To find clinical trials for complementary therapies, ask a member of your health care team or search online.

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