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Complementary and alternative therapies are sometimes referred to as 'unproven cancer therapies' or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
A small percentage of people (one to two per cent) use alternative therapies. An Australian study conducted in 2008 revealed that 65% of cancer patients use some form of complementary therapies. While the Cancer Council supports the right of individuals to seek information about complementary and alternative therapies, and respects their decision to use them, we also want their decision to be an informed one. There are significant differences between a complementary and an alternative cancer therapy. Understanding these differences will help you make the right choices about using these therapies.
This information sheet is for people with cancer and their family and friends who want to know more about complementary and alternative therapies
Complementary therapies are used together with evidence-based, conventional treatments. They do not cure cancer but may help to relieve symptoms or side-effects and improve well-being. Some examples of complementary therapies are acupuncture, aromatherapy, art therapy, massage therapy, meditation, visualization and yoga (NCCAM, 2004).
Complementary therapies are sometimes referred to as supportive care.
Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional therapies to treat cancer. Most of these have not been scientifically tested or, have little evidence supporting their safety and effectiveness. Some examples of alternative therapies are laetrile, shark cartilage, special diets (e.g. Gerson, macrobiotic) and herbal treatments (e.g. mistletoe) (NCCAM, 2004). Alternative therapies are sometimes called unproven or "disproven" treatments.
Conventional therapies are evidence-based treatments that have been tested following scientific guidelines and proven to be safe and effective at curing cancer, slowing its growth or providing relief from symptoms. The main conventional treatments are surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Conventional treatments are sometimes referred to as mainstream, medical or orthodox treatments.
For most people, a cancer diagnosis comes as a huge shock. It can bring uncertainty and confusion about which treatment might be best for you. Your specialists will recommend treatment that has been proven to cure or control your type of cancer. Most people accept these recommendations and feel confident to begin treatment as soon as possible.
You may also hear about other treatment approaches known as complementary therapies. Research shows about one-third of people with cancer use some sort of complementary therapy at some time during their illness. When used alongside your conventional cancer treatment, some of these therapies can make you feel better and improve quality of life. Others may not be so helpful and in some cases may be harmful.You will probably receive lots of advice and information about different types of therapies, from your family, friends, medical professionals, health therapists, workmates, the Internet and various media sources. Some advice will be reliable and helpful; some may be confusing, false and misleading. This information aims to help you and those close to you sort through this advice, ask useful questions and make the choices that are best for you. We hope to help you recognise which therapies may be helpful, and recognise false claims about false &'cures'.
For more information about cancer treatment, call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.
The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our Disclaimer.