What are complementary and alternative therapies?

Knowing the difference between conventional medical treatments and complementary and alternative therapies can help you to make informed treatment decisions.

  • Conventional medical treatments are used by doctors to treat people with cancer. Depending on your type of cancer you may have surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormonal or targeted therapies. These are scientifically tested and researched treatments. These treatments can cure many cancers, help people to live longer or reduce their symptoms.
  • Complementary therapies are used alongside, or in addition to, conventional medical treatments . They do not claim to cure cancer. People use them to boost their physical or emotional health. Or to relieve symptoms or side effects. Some have been scientifically tested to check how effective and safe they are.
  • Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medical treatments. They are not tested in the same way as conventional medical treatments. Some claim to treat or cure cancer. But no alternative therapies have been proven to cure cancer or slow its growth and some may be harmful. We do not advocate the use of alternative therapies.

Always tell your doctor about any therapies you’re using. Find out about our position on the use of complementary therapies below.

Conventional medical treatments

These are the medical treatments doctors use to treat people with cancer. Surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormonal and targeted therapies are all conventional medical treatments.

Many cancers are cured with these treatments. Even when treatments are unable to cure cancer, they often help people live for longer and/or reduce their symptoms.

Conventional medical treatments for cancer are scientifically tested and researched. This means we know how safe and effective they are and what their possible side effects are. This is called evidence-based medicine.

Complementary and alternative therapies

These are sometimes used by people with cancer. They are often grouped together, but there are important differences between them depending on how and why they’re used. A therapy can be complementary if it’s used in one way and alternative if used in another.

Complementary therapies

These are generally used alongside, or in addition to, conventional medical treatments. Complementary therapists don’t claim that they can treat or cure cancer. People generally use complementary therapies to boost their physical or emotional health. Sometimes they may be used to relieve symptoms or the side effects of conventional medical treatments.

Sometimes, complementary therapy is combined with conventional medicine. This is called integrated or integrative medicine.

Some complementary therapies have been tested in the same way as conventional medical treatments. This is to see how effective and safe they are, and to see if they have side effects.

Alternative therapies

Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medical treatments.

Some alternative therapies claim to treat or even to cure cancer. But no alternative therapies have been proven to cure cancer or slow its growth.

Alternative therapies don’t go through the same evidence-based testing as conventional medical treatments. Some may even be harmful.

Using an alternative therapy instead of conventional cancer treatment could reduce the chances of curing someone’s cancer or of living for longer with it.

Complementary therapies and cancer

There are many reasons why people choose to use complementary therapies. Some people find they help them cope with the stresses of cancer and its treatments. Many therapies are relaxing, and may lift your spirits when you aren’t feeling your best.

Doctors and nurses have researched some complementary therapies in trials. Some results showed that certain therapies helped to relieve particular cancer symptoms or treatment side effects. Other results showed no effect on symptoms or side effects. But the therapies researched were found to be safe and most people who tried them found them very supportive.

Complementary therapists usually work with the person as a whole. They don’t just work with the part of the body where the cancer is. This is called a holistic approach. Health and social care professionals, such as doctors, nurses and physiotherapists, also aim to take a holistic approach.

Some people say the relationship they develop with their complementary therapist is an added benefit. Having someone who listens to you may help you cope with difficult feelings.

Finding support for yourself in this way can help you feel more in control. Some people may also see complementary therapies as a positive thing to do for their general well-being.

Some complementary therapies are done in a group. This may be a good opportunity to meet other people with similar experiences in a positive setting.

Complementary therapies may help you:

  • feel better and improve your quality of life
  • feel less stressed, tense and anxious
  • sleep better
  • with some of your cancer symptoms
  • with some of the side effects of your cancer treatment
  • feel more in control.

'It was important for me to feel I was actively doing something to make myself as prepared as I could be for the treatment.'


Complementary therapies - our position

Find out about our position on the use of complementary therapies and the information we provide about them.

Complementary therapy covers a wide range of practices used alongside conventional treatments for illnesses including cancer. They can help some people cope with the symptoms of disease and its treatment, aid relaxation, and reduce tension and anxiety.

We know that they are used by more than one in three of cancer patients[1] and many report finding them helpful.

However, we also know that too often patients do not report their use of complementary therapies to health care professionals. We consider it a priority that patients report the use of any complementary therapies to the health team responsible for their care in order to enable them to discuss any harmful effects.

We know that the scientific evidence base is growing for the use of some therapies in cancer care. However, we would like to see more high-quality research into complementary therapies in order to support patients, health professionals and commissioners to make informed decisions on the application of these therapies.

We make a clear distinction between supportive therapies used in conjunction with anti-cancer treatment and so-called alternative treatments, which are promoted as having an effect on the illness to be used instead of conventional treatment.

We do not advocate the use of alternative therapies.

As part of our ongoing review process of all our content, we are currently reviewing our content about the use of complementary therapies in cancer care.

You can find out more about how we write and produce our information.

Juliet Bouverie

Director of Services

[1] Molassiotis et al. Use of complementary and alternative medicine in cancer patients: a European survey. Annals of Oncology 2005: 16(5) p655-663

'Complementary therapies to me mean a bit of indulgence, massage, me time.'