A growing number of studies are being conducted on CAM therapies for specific groups of patients, such as those with blood cancers. Your doctor can keep you updated on any CAM therapies you're using or thinking about using. And be sure to keep your doctor informed about any drugs, vitamins, herbs or supplements you take.
Do not begin any CAM therapy without consulting with your doctor first. Many therapies have not been proven to be effective and can be harmful to your health, especially if combined with other drugs and treatments. And always be wary of extreme claims.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, groups CAM therapies into broad categories, although many therapies can fall into more than one group:
- Natural products
- Mind-body medicine
- Manipulative and body-based practices
- Movement therapies
- Whole medical systems
- Energy therapies
- Traditional healing practices
Natural products include vitamins, herbs (botanicals), foods, dietary supplements, probiotics and other products that contain substances found in nature. But just because a product is “natural” doesn't mean it's safe. Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't consider complementary and alternative therapies such as vitamins or herbal medicines to be drugs (they label them as foods), these products don't need to undergo FDA testing and approval before they're sold to consumers. This means that their effectiveness and safety is often unknown. Few herbal products have been tested for side effects or quality. However, the FDA can remove a product from the market if they deem the product harmful.
Mind-body interventions use strategies to enhance your mind's impact on your body's function and physical symptoms. They aim to help you relax, reduce stress and relieve symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatments. Practices considered mind-body medicine are wide-ranging and include such distinct types as:
- Meditation - an Eastern technique used to achieve physical relaxation, mental calmness and psychological balance
- Yoga - a combination of movement and breathing techniques aimed at calming the nervous system and balancing the mind, body and spirit; different yoga types range from simple, easy poses to more vigorous movements
- Acupuncture - the most common acupuncture technique employs needles penetrating key points of the skin. It's used to reduce nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy and to relieve some forms of pain. It's also considered to be a manipulative and body-based practice, an energy therapy and a whole medical system
- Guided imagery - a relaxation technique that involves visualizing serene images to relieve pain, nausea and fatigue
- Progressive relaxation - tension and stress relief gained by tensing and relaxing muscle groups
- Deep-breathing exercises - deep, slow inhales and exhales designed to achieve a relaxed state
- Hypnotherapy - hypnosis used to treat ailments such as stress and chronic pain
- Tai chi and qi gong - gentle movements performed with deep breathing
Manipulative and Body-Based Practices
Manipulative and body-based practices are based on the relationship between your body's structure (especially the spine) and function. They involve applying hands-on moving, or manipulating, techniques to one or more parts of your body and focus on the lymphatic system, soft tissues, bones, joints and circulatory system. Spinal manipulation by a chiropractor is one example of this type of practice. Other examples include:
- Osteopathic manipulation - a combination of conventional medicine and hands-on spinal techniques that focus on the whole body to relieve pain, restore function and achieve well-being. This is not for people with peripheral neuropathy
- Reflexology - applied pressure to specific points on the foot, and sometimes the hand, to induce pain relief in other parts of the body or promote relaxation
- Massage therapy - the manipulation of tissue and joints to enhance their function and to promote relaxation. There are several types of massage therapies that practitioners use. Some deep massages aren't recommended for cancer patients when a tumor is present; talk with your doctor before undergoing any type of massage
Movement therapies utilize both Western (conventional) and Eastern approaches. They're used to promote physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Examples include:
- The Feldenkrais method - a form of therapy that makes you more aware of your body's movement with the goal of increased flexibility and coordination
- The Alexander technique - a technique that focuses on posture and body movement for pain relief and other physical benefits
- Pilates - a series of exercises to strengthen and control muscles and improve posture. Special equipment is often used
- Trager psychophysical integration - a hands-on therapy that involves applying a gentle rocking motion to joints to improve range of motion and release tension
Whole Medical Systems
Whole medical systems are complete medical practices and therapies. Some are ancient practices commonly used in other countries such as China and India. Others, such as homeopathy and naturopathy, have been part of Western culture for centuries:
- Chinese medicine - a practice that emphasizes the balance of qi (pronounced "chee") or vital energy. Within this system, illness is defined as a disturbance in the balance of vital energy
- Ayurveda - a system of healing that evolved from teachings of ancient India. It stresses the use of body, mind and spirit in disease prevention and treatment and strives to achieve harmony within the individual
- Homeopathy - an alternative health system that uses remedies containing a diluted version of the substance producing the illness or symptoms
- Naturopathy - an alternative health system that uses the body's own healing power through lifestyle changes, natural remedies such as plant-based drugs and herbs, homeopathy and Chinese medicine such as acupuncture
Energy therapies focus either on energy levels originating within your body (biofields) or from outside sources (electromagnetic fields). Some energy healing therapies, such as Reiki and healing touch, involve having a practitioner "channel" his or her healing energy into your body to promote a normal energy balance and health. Electromagnetic field types include magnet therapy and light therapy.
Traditional Healing Practices
The practices of traditional healers are not supported by any scientific evidence. Examples of traditional healers are the Native American healer/medicine man and the shaman. They use methods based on indigenous practices and beliefs that have been passed down for generations.
Some CAM therapies have been found ineffective or harmful to patients undergoing cancer treatments. This list is not all-inclusive. For more information, talk with your doctor.
- Commonly used as an antidepressant, St. John's wort can interfere with chemotherapeutic agents.
- Some herbs and vitamins, such as feverfew, vitamin E, ginkgo and garlic can disrupt blood clotting and often need to be discontinued before surgery.
- Dietary antioxidants may interact with radiation or chemotherapy.
- Large doses of vitamins can be harmful. Although some dietary supplements may be helpful to promote health in some persons with cancer, megadoses of vitamins haven't been shown to provide any benefit in comfort or survival and may cause diarrhea, renal stones, iron overload and gastrointestinal discomfort. For example, overdoses of vitamin A (25,000 IU or more daily) may cause severe liver disease, and high doses of vitamin B6 (more than 100 mg daily) may cause balance difficulties or nerve injury.
- Laetrile, a drug once considered as a possible cancer treatment, can cause cyanide poisoning. It is not approved by the FDA and is not an effective anticancer therapy.
- Shark cartilage has been touted as a way to boost the immune system to fight cancer but no scientific evidence has proven that it is an effective treatment.