Ovarian Cancer

Complementary approaches

Complementary approaches to dealing with cancer have usually not been rigorously tested so their effects are not measured or proven in the same way as many conventional medicines. Moreover, as the name 'complementary' suggests, these approaches should be considered an addition rather than a substitute for conventional medical treatment. Complementary therapies have no proven effect on the growth of cancer but seem to help many people cope with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and promote a sense of well-being.

Most of the women we talked to did not expect complementary approaches to have any effect on their cancer but used a variety of therapies to help them relax and feel better. Many different approaches were tried including reflexology, aromatherapy and massage, relaxation and meditation, spiritual healing including Reiki, hypnotherapy, homeopathic or naturopathic remedies, yoga, tai chi, qi jung, Alexander technique and magnetic healing. Art therapy classes helped some to express their feelings about their illness.

Some women used therapies to counteract unwanted effects of conventional treatments. One took a homeopathic remedy to help her recover from surgery, and several said acupuncture helped them with unwanted effects of chemotherapy. Ginger, in various forms, was used to counter the nausea sometimes caused by chemotherapy; others tried liquorice, milk thistle, special mushrooms from the Far East or a particular type of herbal tea (Essiac) to counter side effects such as constipation. Some women had been advised by their oncologists to avoid herbal remedies during treatment.

Some unconventional medicines are claimed to have an effect on cancer growth by boosting the immune system but there is no convincing evidence so far. Several women took a herbal medicine derived from mistletoe, alongside other remedies. Another took a mineral tablet that was claimed to deter cancer by keeping her system alkaline. She was also considering taking B17, a naturally occurring cyanide found in the stones of some fruits. Several women talked about changing their diet or eating organic food (see 'Lifestyle and work changes').

It has also been claimed that visualisation (mental imagery) can be used to stimulate the immune system to affect 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 that the mistletoe she was taking was flushing out cancer cells from her body, another that her white blood cells were attacking her cancer. A woman who said that visualising helped her to see her chemotherapy as life-giving rather than a poison imagined following a path through a forest to a chasm which she had to cross.

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People often tried several complementary approaches before they found one that suited them and encouraged others to do what seemed right for them rather than being dictated to by well-meaning friends. Some women stopped having therapies if they didn't think the treatment was working, or found the ideas too 'zany'. A couple of women said they stopped listening to their relaxation tapes because they found it upsetting or depressing to focus on their illness.

One woman was planning to visit a practitioner who specialised in therapies to help the body deal with stress, while another said she believed that hugging people was beneficial because strength could be exchanged through peoples 'auras', in a similar way to Reiki (a type of spiritual healing).

Some women had not used complementary approaches either because they didn't know about them, or because they didn't believe in the claims made about them and preferred to stick to conventional medicine. One said that working was her therapy as it kept her mind off her illness and another recommended a 'cup of tea and a good book'. Several women talked about alternative approaches which involved rejecting conventional medicine but had all decided that they could not take the approaches themselves.

The cost deters some people from using complementary therapies. A woman who had sampled aromatherapy and yoga when they were provided free said she couldn't afford to pay to have them regularly. In some areas certain complementary therapies may be available on the NHS via the GP or provided free by volunteer therapists working at cancer centres and hospices.  

Last reviewed June 2016.

Last updated June 2016.

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