Evaluating Integrative, Complementary, and Alternative Therapies

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

Complementary therapies are treatments, techniques, and products that are used safely in addition to standard cancer treatments. Research shows that some complementary therapies are safe and effective when they are used with standard cancer treatment. They can help people cope with the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment. When complementary therapies and standard medical treatments are used together based on scientific evidence, it is called integrative medicine. This is the preferred approach for people with cancer.

Alternative therapy means something different. Alternative therapies are often promoted as replacement options to treat cancer, instead of the standard medical treatment. For example, instead of chemotherapy, some people promote taking a supplement or eating a special kind of diet. Alternative therapies are unproven (or sometimes disproved) methods that do not treat cancer. Stopping standard medical treatment or using alternative therapy instead of getting medical treatment is dangerous and has been linked to worse outcomes for people with cancer. Always talk with your health care team if you are considering stopping or changing your planned cancer treatment for any reason.

How to evaluate integrative and complementary therapies

There are many different types of integrative and complementary therapies. Some that can improve wellbeing during and after cancer treatment include:

Researchers continue to study various integrative and complementary therapies, including in clinical trials.

If you are considering using a complementary therapy in addition to your standard cancer treatment, you can:

Talk to your oncologist or another member of your health care team. Some cancer centers have doctors that specialize in integrative medicine. There may also be programs, such as yoga or mindfulness programs, that you can participate in. Your oncologist may also have suggestions for specific types of integrative and complementary therapies that can relieve the side effects you are experiencing and help you feel better.

Be especially careful about taking herbs or supplements because these products may affect the effectiveness of your planned cancer treatment. This is called a drug interaction. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist about any herbs or supplements you may want to take.

Participate in a clinical trial studying a complementary therapy. Researchers are always trying to find ways to help people with cancer feel better. This includes studying integrative and complimentary therapies in clinical trials. Learn more about how to find and evaluate available clinical trials.

Read the results of completed clinical trials. To learn more about the different kinds of integrative and complementary therapies that have been studied, you can read the results from already completed clinical trials. Learn more about how to understand cancer research study design and evaluate the results.

Look up information from trusted online sources. There are many resources online that offer information about complimentary therapies. It is important that you look up information from trusted sources that are based in scientific evidence. Learn more about finding reliable sources when searching for cancer information online.

Before you begin any kind of integrative and complementary therapy, talk with your health care team. Let them know what side effects you are experiencing or have gotten worse, along with the different options to find relief.

What are the risks of alternative therapies?

Unlike complementary therapies, alternative therapies are given to replace standard medical treatments for cancer. But standard cancer treatments are the best treatments proven by scientific research.

People may refer to alternative treatments as "natural." But the word natural does not necessarily mean safe or effective. For example, poisonous mushrooms are natural but not safe. And even relatively safe natural products can cause negative reactions in people.

People who choose alternative methods over standard cancer treatment face these risks:

  • An alternative method may cause side effects. Or it may cause other drugs or supplements to not work well.

  • The cancer may worsen while using an alternative therapy because it does not stop the cancer growth. And, options for starting a standard treatment may become more limited because of the severity of the cancer.

There are no effective replacements for standard cancer treatment.

Consider asking these questions to help identify false claims about alternative cancer therapies:

  • Does this treatment promise to cure all cancers? There is no one treatment that will work for every person or every type of cancer.

  • Does the information come from a trusted source?

  • Does research published in scientific journals support these claims?

  • Are these research studies conducted in patients with the same type of cancer that I have?

Learn more about cancer treatment fraud and how to evaluate cancer information online.

Questions to ask the health care team

Discuss all of your treatment options with your health care team. Consider asking the following questions:

  • What is the goal of the therapy?

  • Could this therapy work to help me feel better in combination with my standard cancer treatment?

  • If I use this therapy instead of a standard treatment, will it delay standard cancer treatment? If so, could this delay be harmful to my health?

  • Will this therapy affect my chances of receiving standard treatment later?

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

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

  • What are the possible side effects of this therapy?

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

  • Does this treatment have any chance of affecting my standard cancer treatment? Are there possible interactions to consider?

  • Is the person providing this integrative or complementary therapy willing to work with my other health care providers?

  • Is there a clinical trial for this therapy that I can join?

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