Types of Complementary Therapies

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2016

People living with cancer may consider using complementary therapy in addition to standard treatments.  Many people do this to reduce the side effects of cancer treatment and improve their physical and emotional well-being. Such approaches may also help improve recovery from cancer. However, talk with your health care team before adding complementary therapies to conventional medicine. They can help you add the right options for you in a deliberate and safe manner. This approach is called integrative medicine.

Complementary therapies

You may hear about many different types of complementary therapies. Researchers have found that the following therapies work to reduce pain and improve well-being:

  • Physical Activity. Participating in physical activity can help many people with cancer build strength and endurance, relax, and cope with stress. Being active may help relieve pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Research also shows that it may help lengthen the lives of people with cancer. Talk with a physical therapist or a trainer experienced in working with people with cancer. They can help find the best exercise plan for you.

  • Nutrition. Professional nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian helps patients manage weight changes and cope with nausea. They can also learn about herbs and supplements that may interfere with cancer treatment. The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) both recommend a primarily whole food, plant-based diet and avoiding processed foods. Research also suggests that eating foods that keep your blood sugar from increasing quickly may help with recovery.

  • Acupuncture. This is the use of very tiny needles and/or pressure to stimulate points on the body. Research shows that the therapy releases chemicals, such as beta-endorphin and serotonin, in the brain to relieve pain. Acupuncture can also help reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. It may also help relieve other symptoms including: hot flashes, dry mouth, headache, fatigue, sleep problems, appetite loss, diarrhea, constipation, weight changes, anxiety during procedures, swallowing difficulties, and lymphedema.

  • Mind-Body Practices. It is important to manage stress and depression during and after treatment to have the best chance of recovery. There are many mind-body practices, as well as conventional approaches, that can help. These include psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as other options that have proven helpful for treating depression and mood problems. Some common mind-body practices to manage stress and mood include:

    • Yoga. Yoga uses a combination of breathing exercises, mediation, and poses to stretch and flex various muscle groups. It can also improve mood and physical well-being.  

    • Meditation. Meditation is a way for a person to learn to focus attention to calm the mind and relax the body. It decreases chronic pain and improves mood and other aspects of a person’s quality of life. There are many different types of meditation, such as focused meditation, open awareness/mindfulness, and compassion or loving-kindness meditation. Meditation can be self-taught or guided by others.

    • Music therapy. Trained therapists familiar with the emotional and social concerns of patients and their families guide a person through music therapy. It can help with a patient’s recovery and general well-being. It works well for patients receiving palliative treatments and for those staying in the hospital.

    • Massage. Research shows that massage can reduce pain, tension, and stress. It may also help with symptoms after surgery, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and fatigue.

Talking with your doctor about complementary therapies

It is important to discuss with your doctor the types of complementary therapies that are best for you, before you start any. The answer may depend on the treatment you are receiving. For example, people who are at a higher risk of getting infections or those who are taking blood-thinning medicine should be cautious about using acupuncture.

More Information

Evaluating Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Side Effects

Additional Resources

National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Integrative Medicine