Living with Dying

Complementary and alternative approaches

Many of the people we talked to were using complementary approaches, such as massage, relaxation and dietary changes, alongside conventional treatment, to help them to relax and to promote a feeling of well-being. These therapies were often provided free at day centers or hospices, but if people had to pay for them the cost could be a deterrent.

A few of those we talked to would not consider using complementary therapies because they only believed in treatments that had been tested in a “scientific” way; one said he was not a 'nut and lentil eater' by nature.

Many people changed their diets or took extra vitamins or minerals. For example, a woman with breast cancer cut out all meat and dairy products and said she felt more energetic and confident as a result. Another woman, with ovarian cancer, avoided wheat and dairy produce after reading about blood groups and diet. But some diets are very restrictive, and more often people pick and choose what they are willing to try.

Some people revealed that well-meaning friends had been keen to suggest therapies and dietary changes, which sometimes caused unwelcome pressure.

Several spoke highly of aromatherapy and reflexology. Aromatherapy consists of massage with essential oils for relaxation, and relief for aches and pains.

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Reflexology is based on the belief that the body's health is dependent on the free flow of energy through meridians or pathways throughout the body. Reflexologists believe that each organ or part of the body has a corresponding zone in the feet, and therefore apply pressure to that zone.

Some people recommended Reiki as an aid to relaxation. Reiki practitioners say that they channel external energy via their own hands to the patient's body.

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Another woman with ovarian cancer tried several complementary therapies, in particular visualisation. This involves controlling one's thoughts and thinking about pleasant situations rather than unpleasant or painful events.

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Some people spoke about the power of prayer. For example, a woman with colorectal cancer found a healing group and prayer immensely helpful.

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A woman with chronic obstructive lung disease found that various complementary therapies helped to ease her symptoms. She meditated, burnt oils, and used Chinese remedies (such as tiger balm) on her joints to ease the pain. She also took extra minerals and practised visualisation.

People who had tried complementary approaches were sometimes aware that their doctors thought they were a 'waste of money' but as one woman said, 'When the end of the tunnel's in sight you have to do things that make you feel good'. Some needed to 'try something' so that they would not feel they were taking their illness lying down. A woman who tried various complementary approaches, and took vitamins and minerals (which she thought were expensive) said that she needed to do something to help herself.

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While complementary approaches are used alongside conventional treatments, sometimes people use alternative therapies. This may happen when people are told that there is no more 'active' conventional treatment, or when they feel that they've had enough of the side effects of conventional treatment. For example, a man with cancer of the pancreas took dried apricot seeds when he decided not to have another course of chemotherapy, reasoning that at this stage he had 'nothing to lose'. In spite of a warning from his doctor that the seeds were poisonous he was convinced that they were doing him some good. Most alternative therapies have not been tested using scientific methods, so their effects have not been proven or measured

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Last reviewed August 2014.

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