Understanding different terms

In this information we use the following terms:

  • conventional medical treatments
  • complementary therapies
  • alternative therapies.

It is helpful to understand what these terms mean.

Conventional medical treatments

Conventional medical treatments are used by doctors to treat people with cancer. They include:

These treatments are scientifically tested and researched. They cure many cancers and even when they cannot cure a cancer, they often help people live for longer or reduce their symptoms.

This means we know how safe and effective they are, and if they have side effects. This is called evidence-based medicine.

In this information we call conventional medical treatments 'cancer treatments'.


What are complementary therapies?

Complementary therapies are used with, or as well as, conventional medical treatments. They do not claim that they can treat or cure cancer. People might use complementary therapies to improve their physical or emotional health. Or they may use them to reduce cancer symptoms or the side effects of cancer treatments.

Complementary therapy can be used with conventional medical treatments. This is called integrated or integrative medicine.

Some complementary therapies have been scientifically tested to see how safe and effective they are, and if they have side effects. But it is often difficult to know how effective a complementary therapy is. This is because:

  • studies testing this are usually small
  • studies testing this often give different results
  • it may be other factors that help with the side effects or symptoms of cancer, rather than the therapy itself.

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Alternative therapies

Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medical treatments. They are not scientifically tested and researched in the same way as conventional medical treatments. Some claim to treat, or even to cure, cancer. But no alternative therapies have been proven to cure cancer or slow its growth. Some may even be harmful. 


We do not recommend using an alternative therapy instead of conventional cancer treatment. Doing this could reduce the chances of curing a cancer or living longer with cancer.


Types of complementary therapy

Therapies can be grouped in different ways. Some may fit into more than one group. The main groups are:

Many people also find  talking, counselling and support groups a good source of support.

Advantages of complementary therapies

There are many reasons why people use complementary therapies. Some people find they help them cope with the stress of cancer and its treatments. Many therapies are relaxing and may improve your mood when you are not feeling your best.

Some people build a strong relationship with their complementary therapist, which can be another benefit. Having someone who listens to you may help you cope with difficult feelings.

Getting this support can help you feel more in control. Some people see using complementary therapies as a positive way of looking after themselves.

Some complementary therapies are done as part of a group. This can be a good way 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
  • cope with cancer symptoms
  • cope with some of the side effects of your cancer treatment
  • feel more in control.

Choosing a complementary therapy

When choosing a complementary therapy, it can help to think about:

  • what you would like
  • how it might benefit you
  • its availability
  • any safety issues
  • how much it costs.

You can search online for details of organisations that can tell you more about individual complementary therapies.

If you would like to know what complementary therapies other people have found helpful, you can contact a local cancer support group. Or you can join our Online Community to read about people’s experiences. You can also visit healthtalk.org to read interviews with people who have tried complementary therapies.

Your preferences

To decide what feels right for you, it may help to think about what you want from the complementary therapy.

You may want to:

  • feel more relaxed
  • get help with symptoms or side effects
  • get help with difficult emotions
  • feel generally better
  • make a positive lifestyle change.

It may also help to think about:

  • if the treatments are free or, if you have to pay, how much you can afford
  • if you want a one-off treatment or to do something regularly.

Safety

Doctors do not usually mind their patients using complementary therapies. But some therapies may not be suitable to use alongside certain cancer treatments.

Before using a complementary therapy, talk to your healthcare team. Find out if it could have any harmful effects for you. It is very important to check whether it could:

  • affect your cancer treatment
  • make your cancer treatment less effective
  • make side effects of your cancer treatment worse.

In this information, we have explained any safety issues of a complementary therapy.


We cannot advise you about the best treatment for you. Only your cancer doctor can give you this information.


If you are already using a complementary therapy, make sure you tell your cancer doctor before you start cancer treatment. This is especially important if you are taking herbs, pills or medicines.

Before using a complementary therapy, tell the complementary therapist that you have cancer. This could affect the treatment or advice they give you. Some therapists may not treat someone with a diagnosis of cancer if they have not had training to help them work safely with you.

It is important not to use a therapist who claims to treat, prevent or cure cancer with complementary or alternative therapies. No reputable therapist would do this and there is no medical evidence to support these claims.

Cost of complementary therapies

Some complementary therapies are free through the NHS and some large cancer charities. Ask your cancer doctor or specialist nurse if complementary therapies are available at your hospital, hospice or GP surgery. Some cancer support groups offer therapies free of charge, or at a reduced cost.

If you have to pay for complementary therapy, it can be expensive. The costs can add up over a long period of time. Check the costs beforehand and make sure you are being fairly charged. Some private therapists may offer a reduced cost based on your ability to pay. You can search online for details of organisations that can tell you more about the costs.

Finding information about complementary therapies

Before making any decisions, make sure you have the information you need about the complementary therapy you are interested in. Talk about it with your cancer doctor or specialist nurse.

Ask to have a meeting with a complementary therapist to find out how they think their therapy could help you.

You may find it helpful to take a family member or friend with you for support. It can also help to write down the questions that you want to ask beforehand. Take your time to decide whether you want to go ahead with the therapy.

Our Cancer Information Nurse Specialists can give you more information about complementary and alternative therapies. They can also help you find a suitable therapist or a support group offering complementary therapies in your area. To speak with a Cancer Information Nurse Specialist, you can:

You can also get information from library books and online. Be careful when choosing what to read or believe on the Internet. Some websites make claims that are not supported by evidence and others may be selling products to make money.

Choosing a complementary therapist

When you choose a complementary therapist, it is best to find someone who is on a register. This will help make sure the person you see meets certain standards of practice.

There are two types of register:

  • Accredited register

    Membership of these are voluntary. There are many accredited registers for different types of complementary therapies. A practitioner on an accredited register may have a quality mark. This may be displayed on a certificate of qualification, or in their place of work.

  • Statutory register

    These are regulated by UK law. Health professionals such as nurses, doctors and pharmacists must be on the register for their profession to be able to practice.

Registrants for both of these types of register should meet national standards of practice on issues such as:

  • training
  • safety
  • confidentiality
  • complaints.

All registrants must follow the code of conduct of their register. If you have any concerns about the conduct of a registrant, you can contact their register. They should deal with complaints fairly and as quickly as possible.

Tips for choosing a therapist

When choosing a therapist:

  • check what services your hospital provides first
  • remember that some health professionals are trained in complementary therapies
  • always use a qualified therapist who is on a statutory or accredited register
  • ask how many years of training they have had and how long they have been practising
  • ask how much they charge
  • ask what training they have had about complementary therapies and cancer
  • ask if they have indemnity insurance (in case of harm from complementary therapy side effects)
  • be careful not to be misled by false promises – no trustworthy therapist would claim to be able to cure cancer.

A professional therapist should make you feel comfortable with them. Before your first treatment, they may ask you about your health, diet and lifestyle. This will help them to decide if they need to adapt the treatment to meet your needs. They may ask you to get permission from your cancer doctor before starting treatment.

If you ever feel uncomfortable or unhappy with your therapist, you have the right to stop your treatment at any time.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our complementary therapies information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Cassilieth B. The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care: Essential Information for Patients Survivors and Health Professionals. 2011. 

    Ernst E, et al. Oxford Handbook of Complementary Medicine. 2008. 
         

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been approved by Dr Saul Berkovitz.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.