Complementary approaches

Many cancer treatment centres offer complementary therapies such as reflexology, aromatherapy, meditation, and relaxation exercises; they are now often seen as part of conventional support for many patients. Most of these approaches to dealing with cancer have been less thoroughly tested than conventional medicines so their effects are not measured or proven in the same way. They have no proven effect on the growth of cancer, but they seem to help many people to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and promote a sense of well-being. They may also reduce the side effects of cancer treatment. For instance acupuncture may be used to treat nausea resulting from chemotherapy and it may also relieve some types of pain. 

As the word 'complementary' suggests, these approaches should be considered an addition rather than a substitute for conventional medical treatment. Because some complementary therapies may be unsuitable for people with particular types of cancer or having a particular treatment, people with cancer should discuss complementary therapies with their hospital specialist before having them. Health professionals' attitudes towards different complementary therapies varies. Some doctors are particularly cautious about patients using herbal medicines because they are unsure of their effects and possible interactions with other medicines. Patients' attitudes to different complementary therapies also vary; some people we spoke to were happy to use one form of therapy (e.g. acupuncture) but would not consider another (e.g. herbalism). 

Some people had used complementary remedies to try to relieve their symptoms before they knew that they had lymphoma. For instance a man who had persistent abdominal pain had used acupuncture and another had tried arnica (a herbal and homeopathic remedy) along with heat and ice for his persistent back ache. 

Visualisation (mental imagery) has been claimed to stimulate the immune system to limit cancer growth, and research is being done to test this. Visualisation involves the use of imagination while in a state of relaxation or meditation. One woman imagined her chemotherapy tablets chasing and 'zapping' her lymphoma cells, and the monoclonal antibodies cuddling the cells to death. Another imagined a journey that ended with finding a box that emitted a blue light that spread over her body, overpowering its red light.

Some people used complementary therapies to counter the unwanted effects of conventional treatments or to help them relax and sleep better. Several said acupuncture helped relieve nausea, bloating and heartburn caused by chemotherapy. A woman used osteopathy to help relieve cramping pains in her arm after her chemotherapy injections and acupuncture to help her sleep. One woman adopted a special diet of non-processed foods during her treatment to help her body as much as possible in coping with chemotherapy. 

Several people said that massage helped them to relax. A man said he talked to his Shiatsu massage therapist about his fears, a topic he found difficult to discuss with his family. A woman who enjoyed regular massage, which lifted her spirits, was pleased that she could afford it after her financial adviser had encouraged her to take out critical illness cover. Many people paid for their complementary therapies, others used free therapies provided by volunteer therapists at cancer centres and hospices.

A woman had changed her diet and used complementary approaches because she felt the need to get some control over her condition and not just rely on her doctors. A man had tried a tonic made from the Amapa tree and another found some special mushrooms via a website.

After completion of treatment, several people tried to strengthen their immune system and prevent infections by taking vitamin or mineral supplements, herbal or homeopathic remedies, organic foods, deeply coloured fruits and vegetables and other foods high in antioxidants such as green tea. 

Of those who chose not to use any complementary approaches, some regarded complementary approaches as just not their 'thing', or thought that other people might benefit, while others said the lymphoma was too serious to use any approaches that their doctors did not suggest. Some of the people who felt this way had used complementary approaches for other health issues. One woman thought the illness experience was traumatic and invasive enough without having additional treatments, another didn't want to do anything that might interfere with her conventional treatment. A woman had decided not to risk having a massage because she was told it might 'send all the cells round your body'. Research has shown that it is safe for people with cancer to have massage but it should avoid the parts of the body affected by the cancer.

People were often aware of alternative approaches to treating cancer, but were very sceptical about claims that they might be effective. Friends and family members had sometimes suggested using alternative therapies instead of conventional medicine but no one we talked to had decided to take this advice. In some cases this was because the alternative approaches seemed too time-consuming - in one woman's words' “When the sands of time are running out you don't want to squander them making carrot soup”. 

Last reviewed February 2016.

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