Types of Complementary Therapies

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2019

Some people with cancer may consider using complementary therapy in addition to standard cancer treatment. This approach is called integrative medicine when it has been discussed with and approved by your health care team. Many people use complementary therapies to:

  • Reduce the side effects of cancer treatment

  • Improve their physical and emotional well-being

  • Improve their recovery from cancer

Talk with your health care team before adding any therapies to your standard treatment. They can help you safely combine the therapies that are right for you.

Type of complementary therapies

Researchers have found that the following complementary therapies can reduce pain and improve well-being:

  • Physical activity. Participating in physical activity may help people with cancer:

    • Build strength and endurance

    • Relax and cope with stress

    • Relieve pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression

    • Live longer

Talk with a physical therapist or a trainer who works 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

    • Learn which foods to eat during treatment and recovery

    • Cope with nausea

    • Learn about herbs and supplements that may interfere with cancer treatment

    • Learn how to eat in a way that could lengthen their lives

  • Acupuncture. This type of therapy involves the use of very tiny needles and/or pressure to stimulate points on the body. Research shows that acupuncture:

    • Releases chemicals, such as beta-endorphin and serotonin, in the brain to relieve pain

    • Can help reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting

    • Can help relieve certain symptoms:

      • Hot flashes

      • Dry mouth

    • May relieve the other symptoms listed below, but there is less information on how well it can work for these symptoms:

      • Headache

      • Fatigue

      • Sleep problems

      • Appetite loss and weight changes

      • Diarrhea and constipation

      • Anxiety during procedures

      • Swallowing difficulties

      • Lymphedema

  • Mind and body practices. It is important to manage stress and depression during and after treatment. It can help you have the best chance of recovery. Many mind and body practices can help improve quality of life:

    • Yoga. Yoga uses breathing exercises, mediation, and poses to stretch and flex different muscle groups. Yoga has been found to help regulate stress hormones and improve mood and physical well-being. It can also reduce pain, fatigue, nausea, sleep problems, and inflammation.

    • Tai chi and qigong. Tai chi and qigong combine a series of fluid movements with slow, regulated breathing. These mind-body practices have been found to improve quality of life, reduce sleep problems, and decrease inflammation.

    • Meditation. Meditation is the focusing of attention to calm the mind and relax the body. It decreases chronic pain and improves mood and many other aspects of quality of life. Studies have also shown that meditation can lower stress hormones and improve immune function. Meditation can be self-taught or guided by others. There are many different types, including:

      • Focused meditation

      • Open awareness/mindfulness

      • Compassion or loving-kindness meditation 

    • Music therapy. Trained therapists can guide a person through music therapy. It can improve recovery and general well-being. Music therapy works well for people receiving palliative treatments and those staying in the hospital. 

    • Massage. Research shows that massage can: 

      • Reduce pain

      • Decrease tension and stress

      • Help with recovery after surgery

      • Ease anxiety and depression

      • Help with sleep problems and fatigue

Discussing complementary therapies with your health care team

Before starting any complementary therapies, talk with your health care team about which types are best for you. Some therapies may not be suitable to combine with your current treatment.

Related Resources

Evaluating Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Side Effects

Coping with Cancer Through Yoga and Meditation

Is CBD Safe for People With Cancer?

More Information

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

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Integrative Medicine