Evaluating Complementary and Alternative Therapies

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

Research shows that some complementary therapies are safe and effective when used with standard cancer treatment. But alternative therapies do not treat cancer. They are also often costly and may be harmful.

How to evaluate a complementary or alternative therapy

It is important to fully understand a therapy before combining it with a standard cancer treatment. Here are some things to consider:

  • First, discuss all treatment options with your health care team. Make sure the therapy works well with your cancer treatment plan.

  • Find out who is recommending this therapy.

    • If you find only personal stories and no trustworthy research, the therapy probably does not treat cancer.

    • If news or ads about a therapy appear in mass media but not in scientific journals, it is unlikely to help treat cancer.

    • If a treatment promises to cure all cancers, the ad is a fraud. There are more than 100 different types of cancer. No one treatment will work for every person or for every type of cancer. Learn more about evaluating cancer information on the Internet.

  • The word "natural" does not mean "safe." For example, poisonous mushrooms are natural but not safe. You can have a bad reaction to a natural product, even if it is safe. Many herbal therapies and dietary products act like drugs in your body and cause side effects.

  • Before giving a dietary or herbal product to a child, talk with his or her pediatric oncologist. A child's body uses drugs and nutrients differently. And children need different doses than adults.

  • Ask yourself these questions about the complementary or alternative therapy:

    • What is the therapy’s goal?

    • Does it work in combination with or replace a standard therapy?

    • If I use this therapy instead of a standard treatment or a clinical trial, will it delay standard treatment? Could this delay be harmful?

    • Will this therapy affect the chances of receiving treatment later?

    • What research is available about this treatment’s safety and effectiveness?

    • Does the person offering this treatment have a license or credentials?

    • Will this treatment work for the type of cancer I have?

    • Has research supporting this treatment been published in peer-reviewed medical journals?

    • Is it possible to have a reaction to or side effects from this therapy?

    • Is there good safety data to support the therapy?

    • For natural products and supplements, is there information to support that ingredients listed are accurate and that there is no contamination?

    • Is there a clinical trial for this therapy that I can join? Learn more about complementary therapies and clinical trials.

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