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Alternative Therapy for Cancer

What is alternative therapy?

Alternative therapy (or alternative medicine) is a nonconventional approach to healing. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are often discussed together. But they are really 2 different therapy approaches:

  • Complementary medicine. This is any form of therapy used together with standard or conventional medicine. Complementary therapy often serves to ease symptoms and improve quality of life.

  • Alternative medicine. Alternative medicine is used alone instead of proven standard medical treatment.

Some people use complementary treatments to ease symptoms or side effects while getting standard or conventional treatment. For instance, using guided imagery for pain relief during cancer treatment. Standard or conventional medicine refers to medical treatments that have been scientifically tested and found to be safe and effective. These treatments have been approved by the FDA.

Other people may decide to try alternative therapy. Talk with your healthcare provider before starting any alternative treatment. These treatments are not scientifically tested or proven.

They can delay the use of proven methods. Or they may be harmful.

What are the different types of CAM?

Many different fields make up the practice of complementary and alternative medicine. In addition, many parts of one field may overlap with the parts of another field. Examples of CAM include:

Traditional alternative medicine

This field includes the more mainstream and widely accepted forms of therapy. Traditional alternative medicine has been practiced for centuries worldwide. Some examples are:

  • Acupuncture. Thin needles are inserted through the skin to stimulate specific points on the body.

  • Ayurveda. A medical practice from India consisting of herbal compounds, exercise, and special diets.

  • Homeopathy. A medical practice from Germany consisting of individualized remedies derived from plants, minerals, and animals.

  • Naturopathy. A practice that combines traditional practices and healthcare approaches.

  • Chinese or Oriental medicine. This approach addresses health issues using mind and body practices. These can include acupuncture, tai chi, and herbal products.


Touch has been used in medicine since the early days of medical care. Healing by touch is based on the idea that illness or injury in one part of the body can affect all parts of the body. These methods use hands-on therapy on the nonaffected parts of the body to restore optimum health. Then the body is able to focus on healing at the site of injury or illness. Examples of body therapies include:

  • Chiropractic

  • Massage

  • Body movement

  • Tai chi

  • Yoga

Diet and herbs

Centuries ago, people had simple diets of meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains. Today our diet often consists of foods rich in unhealthy fats, oils, processed foods, and complex carbohydrates. Nutritional excess and nutritional deficiency have become problems in today's world. Both lead to certain long-term (chronic) diseases. Many dietary and herbal approaches try to balance the body's nutritional well-being. These approaches include:

  • Dietary supplements, minerals, and vitamins

  • Herbal medicine

External energy

Some people believe external forces (energies) from objects or other sources directly affect a person's health. One type of external energy therapy is electromagnetic therapy.


Standard or conventional medicine sees the power of the mind-body connection. Studies have found that people heal better if they have good emotional and mental health. Therapies using the mind include:

  • Biofeedback

  • Hypnosis

  • Meditation


Some people believe the senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste) can affect overall health. Therapies using senses include:

  • Art, dance, and music

  • Guided imagery

  • Aromatherapy

Before considering CAM

Most complementary and alternative medicine fields aren't standardized or controlled by any Western medical guidelines. Always talk with your healthcare provider before starting any type of CAM therapy. Some therapies may interfere with standard treatment.

It's important to be informed when you're thinking about trying CAM. Before starting any therapy, get more information by:

  • Talking with your healthcare provider

  • Researching online or in books, articles, and scientific journals

  • Speaking with others who have tried the therapy

  • Looking for controlled, scientific studies about the therapy, whenever possible

What warning signs may indicate a fraudulent therapy?

According to the American Cancer Society, if a treatment has these warning signs, it's best to avoid it:

  • Treatment is based on unproven theories

  • Treatment promises a cure

  • Treatment offers benefits but claims to have no side effects

  • Treatment is a secret and can only be given by certain providers

  • Treatment requires travel to another country

  • Treatment providers tell you not to use standard or conventional medicine

Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2020
© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.