Treatments & Tests

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

What Cancer Patients Need to Know

What is complementary and alternative medicine?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), as defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.

Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine.

Why do patient use CAM?

People with cancer may use CAM to:

  • Help cope with the side effects of cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain, and fatigue;
  • Comfort themselves and ease the worries of cancer treatment and related stress;
  • Feel that they are doing something more to help with their own care;
  • Try to treat or cure their cancer.

What types of CAM modalities are there?

Mind-Body Medicines

These are based on the belief that your mind is able to affect your body. Some examples are:

  • Meditation: Focused breathing or repetition of words or phrases to quiet the mind;
  • Biofeedback: Using simple machines, the patient learns how to affect certain body functions that are normally out of one's awareness (such as heart rate);
  • Hypnosis: A state of relaxed and focused attention in which the patient concentrates on a certain feeling, idea, or suggestion to aid in healing;
  • Yoga: Systems of stretches and poses, with special attention given to breathing;
  • Imagery: Imagining scenes, pictures, or experiences to help the body heal;
  • Creative outlets: Such as art, music, or dance.

Biologically Based Practices

This type of CAM uses things found in nature. This includes dietary supplements and herbal products. Some examples are:

Manipulative and Body-Based Practices

These are based on working with one or more parts of the body. Some examples are:

  • Massage: Manipulation of tissues with hands or special tools;
  • Chiropractic care (ky-ro-PRAK-tik): A type of manipulation of the joints and skeletal system;
  • Reflexology (ree-flex-AH-lo-gee): Using pressure points in the hands or feet to affect other parts of the body.
  • Energy Medicine
    Energy medicine involves the belief that the body has energy fields that can be used for healing and wellness. Therapists use pressure or move the body by placing their hands in or through these fields. Some examples are:
  • Tai Chi: Involves slow, gentle movements with a focus on the breath and concentration;
  • Reiki: Balancing energy either from a distance or by placing hands on or near the patient;
  • Therapeutic touch: Moving hands over energy fields of the body.

Whole Medical Systems

These are healing systems and beliefs that have evolved over time in different cultures and parts of the world. Some examples are:

  • Ayurvedic medicine A system from India emphasizing balance among body, mind, and spirit;
  • Chinese medicine: Based on the view that health is a balance in the body of two forces called yin and yang. Acupuncture is a common practice in Chinese medicine that involves stimulating specific points on the body to promote health, or to lessen disease symptoms and treatment side effects;
  • Homeopathy:Uses very small doses of substances to trigger the body to heal itself;
  • Naturopathic medicine: Uses different methods that help the body naturally heal itself.

What should patients do when using or considering complementary and alternative therapies?

Cancer patients using or considering complementary or alternative therapy should discuss this decision with their doctor or nurse, as they would any therapeutic approach. Some complementary and alternative therapies may interfere with standard treatment or may be harmful when used with conventional treatment. It is also a good idea to become informed about the therapy, including whether the results of scientific studies support the claims that are made for it.

When considering complementary and alternative therapies, what questions should patients ask their health care providers?

  • What benefits can be expected from this therapy?
  • What are the risks associated with this therapy?
  • Do the known benefits outweigh the risks?
  • What side effects can be expected?
  • Will the therapy interfere with conventional treatment?
  • Is this therapy part of a clinical trial? If so, who is sponsoring the trial?
  • Will the therapy be covered by health insurance?

Additional Information from the National Institutes of Health:

National CAM Resources:

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Clearinghouse
Toll-free in the United States: 1–888–644–6226
International: 301–519–3153
Callers with TTY equipment: 1–866–464–3615
Fax: 1–866–464-3616
Fax-on-Demand service: 1–888–644–6226
E-mail: info@nccam.nih.gov
Web site: http://nccam.nih.gov

NCI’s PDQ, a comprehensive cancer information database, contains peer-reviewed summaries of the latest information about the use of CAM in the treatment of cancer. Each summary contains background information about the specific treatment, a brief history of its development, information about relevant research studies, and a glossary of scientific and medical terms. CAM summaries can be accessed at http://www.cancer.gov/cancerinfo/pdq/cam on the Internet

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates drugs and medical devices to ensure that they are safe and effective. This agency provides a number of publications for consumers, including information about dietary supplements.
Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857
Telephone: 1–888–463–6332 (toll free)
Web site: http://www.fda.gov/
FDA’s Dietary Supplements Web page: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/supplmnt.html

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces consumer protection laws and offers publications to guide consumers. The FTC also collects information about fraudulent claims.

Consumer Response Center
Federal Trade Commission
CRC–240
Washington, DC 20580
Telephone: 1–877–FTC–HELP (1–877–382–4357) (toll free)
Callers with TTY equipment: 202–326–2502
Web site: http://www.ftc.gov/

CAM on PubMed, a database accessible via the Internet, was developed jointly by NCCAM and the NIH National Library of Medicine. It contains bibliographic citations (from 1966 to the present) to articles in scientifically based, peer-reviewed journals on CAM. These citations are a subset of the NLM’s PubMed system, which contains over 11 million journal citations from the MEDLINE database and additional life science journals important to health researchers, practitioners, and consumers. CAM on PubMed also displays links to many publisher Web sites, which may offer the full text of articles. To access CAM on PubMed, go to http://www.nlm.nih.gov/nccam/camonpubmed.html on the Internet.

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