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Integrative Medicine and Complementary Therapies

Integrative medicine (IM) is a form of medical therapy that combines practices and treatments from complementary medicine (yoga, acupuncture and massage) with conventional medicine (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment and immunotherapy). Many cancer patients are using integrative medicine (IM) to help ease their cancer symptoms and reduce the side effects of cancer treatment. By integrating complementary therapies into conventional treatment plans, healthcare providers are better able to address the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of their patients. Complementary medicine is not a replacement for cancer treatment. No complementary health treatment has been proven to cure cancer.

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.

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 numerous studies and is now recognized as a safe method for managing chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting. Many complementary therapies are gentle, relaxing, and minimally invasive, providing ways for patients to develop an appreciation of themselves and an awareness of their own inner strength. Some techniques are “passive,” requiring limited participation (such as massage and aromatherapy), while others are “active” (such as yoga and tai chi).

Risks of Complementary Therapies 

Still, there are comparatively few studies about the safety and effectiveness of many complementary therapies. To date, there is no definitive clinical evidence that any complementary therapies can slow cancer progression. Unproven products or practices should not be used to replace or postpone standard medical treatment. Delaying conventional cancer treatment can be dangerous and decrease the likelihood of a remission or a cure. Any treatments that are presented as alternatives to standard cancer therapies should be considered only within the context of clinical trials.

Despite some patients’ views that complementary therapies are natural and safe, medical research indicates that not all these therapies are harmless. Cancer patients should consult with their healthcare providers before trying any complementary therapy for any purpose, whether it is cancer-related or not.

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 of this therapy? 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 that you would advise against?
  • Do you know if this therapy is part of a clinical trial? How can I learn more about clinical trial eligibility and enrollment?

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. 

Receive one-on-one navigation from an LLS Clinical Trial Specialist who will personally assist you throughout the entire clinical-trial process: Click Here

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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