Types of Complementary Therapies

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2021

Some people with cancer may consider using "complementary therapy" in addition to standard cancer treatment. Complementary therapies are used to:

  • Reduce the side effects of cancer treatment

  • Improve physical and emotional well-being

  • Improve recovery from cancer

Talk with your health care team before trying or adding any complementary therapies to your standard treatment. They can help you safely combine such therapies that are right for you. When you discuss a complementary therapy with your health care team and they agree that it is safe to try as part of your overall cancer care, this is called "integrative medicine."

Types of complementary therapies

There is scientific evidence that these complementary therapies can be helpful and people with cancer find them useful for improving their quality of life:

  • Acupuncture

  • Yoga

  • Tai chi and qigong

  • Meditation

  • Music and art therapy

  • Massage

  • Physical activity

  • Nutrition

How does acupuncture help people with cancer?

Acupuncture involves the use of very thin needles or pressure to stimulate specific points on the body. Acupuncture causes changes in the fascia, which is the connective tissue that covers your muscles and bones. This can lead to changes in the brain, such as the release of chemicals like serotonin or changes in electrical activity. These changes are thought to explain, in part, how acupuncture works to treat different symptoms. Acupuncture is a common practice in traditional Chinese medicine and there is more and more research showing how acupuncture can help people with cancer with different side effects.

Acupuncture has been shown to:

  • Relieve pain

  • Reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting

  • Reduce side effects including hot flashes

  • Help with dry mouth

Acupuncture may be able to help with these other symptoms, although there is less research:

  • Headache

  • Fatigue

  • Sleep problems

  • Appetite loss and weight changes

  • Diarrhea and constipation

  • Anxiety during procedures

  • Swallowing difficulties

  • Lymphedema

How can yoga help people with cancer?

Reducing stress and anxiety is another benefit of complementary therapies. Yoga uses breathing exercises, meditation, relaxation techniques, and poses to stretch and flex different muscle groups. Yoga helps to reduce stress, calm the mind, and connect mind and body.

Yoga has these benefits:

  • Improves overall quality of life

  • Increases physical functioning and ability to conduct activities of daily living

  • Improves mood and physical wellbeing

  • Reduces pain

  • Reduces fatigue

  • Improves nausea

  • Reduces sleep problems

  • Increases ability to find meaning in the illness experience

  • Helps regulate stress hormones

  • Decreases inflammation

  • Increases immune function

How can tai chi and qigong help people with cancer?

Tai chi and qigong combine a series of fluid movements with slow, regulated breathing, and calming of the mind.

Tai chi and qigong can:

  • Improve quality of life

  • Reduce sleep problems

  • Decrease inflammation

How can meditation help people with cancer?

Meditation is the practice of focusing your attention to calm the mind and relax the body. Sometimes you might silently repeat a calming word or chant. Other times, you might only focus on your breathing or just being aware of thoughts and feelings with no judgement, attachment, or interpretation.

Meditation can be self-taught or guided by others. There are many different types, including focused meditation, open awareness and mindfulness, and compassion or loving-kindness meditation.

Studies show meditation can:

  • Decrease chronic pain

  • Improve mood and many other aspects of quality of life

  • Lower stress hormones

  • Improve immune function

How does music therapy and art therapy help people with cancer?

Trained therapists can guide a person through music therapy or art therapy. It can improve recovery, general wellbeing, and reduce anxiety. This kind of therapy works especially well for people receiving palliative treatments and those staying in the hospital.

How can massage relieve side effects of cancer and cancer treatment?

Massage can help promote relaxation, ease tension, increase comfort, and reduce pain. People with cancer may especially benefit from massage and its subspecialty called oncology massage. In addition to receiving massage from a massage therapist, a caregiver can do simple massage to help you relax. You can also try massage on yourself.

Research shows that massage can:

  • Reduce pain

  • Decrease tension and stress

  • Help with recover after surgery

  • Ease anxiety and depression

  • Help with sleep problems and fatigue

How does physical activity help people with cancer?

A growing amount of research shows that regular exercise can greatly improve different aspects of patients' physical and mental health during every phase of treatment. Even if you were not active before your cancer diagnosis, an exercise program that meets your unique needs can help you get moving safely and successfully. Talk with your health care team about physical activity that's right for you.

How does nutrition help people with cancer?

Eating nutritious foods help people with cancer get important nutrients, such as protein, vitamins, and minerals. And, sometimes the side effects of cancer treatment can cause a person to experience appetite loss, weight loss, or weight gain. Eating well can help you maintain a healthy body weight during and after treatment. An oncology registered dietitian (RD) helps people with cancer with their nutrition needs.

It is especially important to talk with your health care team before you take any dietary or herbal supplements, to check for possible drug interactions with your cancer treatment.

Questions to ask the health care team

Your health care team can help you find complementary therapies that will help you feel better. Consider asking these questions:

  • Are there any complementary therapies you recommend that may help with the side effects I'm experiencing?

  • What is the research to show how this complementary therapy can help people with cancer?

  • Are there possible side effects from this complementary therapy I'll need to watch for?

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

  • Does this hospital or clinic any complementary therapy programs I can consider?

  • Where can I find complementary therapy services in my community?

Related Resources

Evaluating Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Side Effects

Coping with Cancer Through Yoga and Meditation

More Information

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

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Integrative Medicine