Understanding different treatment types

As well as conventional medical treatments, you may hear about complementary therapies and alternative therapies. Knowing about them can help you make informed treatment decisions.

Conventional medical treatments

These are used by doctors to treat people with cancer. They include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapyhormonal and targeted therapies. These treatments are scientifically tested and researched. They can cure many cancers, help people to live longer or reduce symptoms.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies are used alongside, or in addition to, conventional medical treatments. They do not claim to treat or cure cancer. People use complementary therapies to boost their physical or emotional health. Or to relieve symptoms or side effects of conventional treatments. Some have been scientifically tested to check how effective and safe they are.

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Alternative therapies

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. Some may be harmful.

We do not advocate the use of alternative therapies.

Types of complementary therapy

Therapies can be grouped in different ways and 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.

Why people use complementary therapies

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

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.

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
  • cope with some of your cancer symptoms
  • cope with some of the side effects of your cancer treatment
  • feel more in control.

Things to think about

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

  • what you would like to do
  • how it may benefit you
  • any safety issues
  • how much it costs.

If you would like to know what other people have found helpful, you can contact a local cancer support group. Or you could join our Online Community. Support groups and online communities make it possible for people affected by cancer to give and get support. People can share their experiences of all aspects of their treatment, including 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.

There are some other things to think about:

  • What is available in your area?
  • Are treatments free or, if you have to pay, how much can you afford?
  • Do you want a one-off treatment or something to do regularly?


Doctors do not usually have a problem with their patients using complementary therapies. But some therapies may not be suitable if you are having certain treatments.

Before using a complementary therapy, talk to your cancer healthcare team. Find out if it could have any harmful effects for you. It is very important to check whether it could interact with your cancer treatment, make it less effective or increase side effects.

We cannot advise you about the best treatment for you. This information can only come from your doctor.

If you are already having complementary therapy before you start conventional treatment, make sure you tell your cancer doctor or nurse, especially if you are taking herbs, pills or medicines.

If you are using a complementary therapy, it is very important to tell the complementary therapist you have cancer.

It is important to avoid any therapist who claims to treat, prevent or cure cancer. No reputable therapist would do this and these types of claims are not backed up by medical evidence.

Cost of complementary therapies

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

Therapies that are not provided by the NHS, cancer support charities or support groups 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.

Getting information about complementary therapies

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

Ask to have a consultation with a complementary therapist first to find out what they think their therapy can do for you.

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

The Macmillan Support Line can give you more information on complementary and alternative therapies. They can also help you find a suitable therapist or a support group offering complementary therapy services in your area. Call 0808 808 00 00.

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 backed up by evidence and others may be selling products for profit.

Choosing a complementary therapist

There are several organisations in the UK that have registers of complementary therapists. Therapists volunteer to join the register, as registration is not compulsory.

The organisations ask that members have met a national standard of practice. They may have a quality mark displayed on a certificate of qualification, or in their place of work.

This is different to the way doctors and nurses are registered in the UK. Doctors and nurses must also meet a national standard of practice but it is regulated by law.

When choosing a therapist, you should do the following:

  • Remember that some health professionals, such as doctors, nurses and physiotherapists, are trained in complementary therapies – so it is worth checking what services your hospital provides first.
  • Always use a therapist who is on a register. All registrants must abide by the Code of Conduct of their register. If you have any concerns about the conduct of a registrant, you can contact their register.
  • Check if the organisation has a code of practice and ethics, and a disciplinary and complaints procedure.
  • Ask how many years of training they have had and how long they have been practising.
  • Ask what training they have done around 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 ever claim to be able to cure cancer.