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Integrative Medicine and Complementary Therapies

IM combines standard medicine (such as surgery, chemotherapy, drug therapy and radiation therapy) with safe and effective complementary therapies. Complementary therapies don’t replace your cancer treatment or care; they supplement your care by boosting well-being without interfering with standard treatments. Examples of complementary therapies are therapeutic massage, acupuncture, meditation, yoga, art therapy and music therapy.

By integrating complementary therapies into conventional treatment plans, healthcare providers are better able to address the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of their patients.

Cancer patients may suffer from physical and emotional distress due to their disease or its treatment. Many patients are turning to integrative medicine (IM) to

  • Reduce stress
  • Prevent or minimize side effects and symptoms
  • Support health and healing.

Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of IM. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the National Cancer Institute Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) support research that holds complementary therapies to the same rigorous scientific standards used to evaluate medical treatments. Researchers work to determine which treatments are effective and safe. 

Never begin a complementary treatment without speaking with your oncologist first and getting his or her approval. Some unproven therapies might not be safe or effective and put your health and recovery at risk.

The Benefits of Complementary Therapies

A growing number of people are turning to complementary therapies as a way to help manage symptoms, reduce side effects, and restore and promote a sense of control and vitality. Roughly two out of three cancer patients have tried at least one complementary therapy as part of their cancer care. 

Existing scientific evidence has found that certain complementary therapies may alleviate cancer-related symptoms and treatment side effects such as nausea and fatigue. For example, acupuncture has been evaluated in a number of studies and is now recognized as a safe method for managing chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting, and it is effective for some patients. Many complementary therapies are gentle, relaxing and minimally invasive and provide ways for patients to develop an appreciation of themselves and an awareness of their inner strength. Some techniques are “passive,” requiring limited participation such as massage and aromatherapy, while others are “active” such as yoga and tai chi.

Questions to Ask Your Healthcare Team 

  • Use the following questions as a guide to discuss complementary therapies with your healthcare team:
  • Are there complementary therapies that you would recommend?
  • What research is available about this therapy’s safety and effectiveness?
  • What are the benefits and risks of this therapy?
  • How will I know if the therapy is working or not?
  • Will this therapy interfere with standard cancer treatments?
  • Are there potential side effects? What should I look for?
  • Do you offer this therapy as part of your practice? If not, can you refer me to a licensed practitioner in the area?
  • Are there specific therapies which you would advise against?
  • Do you know if this therapy is part of a clinical trial? Should I consider participating?

Complementary Therapies and Clinical Trials

Clinical trials to study various complementary therapies are underway in many locations across the country to assess their safety, benefits, dosing and relative effectiveness. Patients enrolled in complementary studies receive the best standard cancer treatment either with or without the complementary therapies in question. 

If you'd like to know more about complementary clinical trials, speak with your doctor or contact one of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Information Specialists at (800) 955-4572.

Complementary Therapies and Insurance Coverage

Some health insurance companies have started covering certain types of complementary therapies, such as acupuncture or chiropractic care. Check with your insurance provider to find out about your coverage.

How to Find an IM Specialist or a Complementary Health Practitioner

If you are looking for a complementary health practitioner for treatment, it is important to conduct a careful and thorough search. Here are some suggestions to help in your search for a practitioner:

  • Your oncologist or cancer center may be able to refer you to a complementary health practitioner. A local hospital or medical school, professional organizations, state regulatory agencies or licensing boards, or even your health insurance provider may also be able to give you a referral.
  • Ask family and friends if they can recommend a practitioner for the type of therapy that you are seeking.
  • Be sure to find out whether the practitioners you are considering are licensed or certified and if they have worked with cancer patients.
    • Before scheduling any appointments, ask how many years they have been in practice, where they received their training, as well as the estimated cost of treatment. The goal is to find practitioners who will work with your oncologist and other healthcare providers so that together, they can devise a treatment plan that meets your needs.

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