Living with dying

Complementary and alternative approaches for terminally ill people

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.


He would not try complementary therapies because he cannot believe in treatments that have not...

View full profile
Age at interview: 54
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 53
So we were just going to pick up on your views on complementary medicine.

Right. Yeah. Because of just the way I am. I'm a practical down-to-earth type of person and I only believe in the real world. I think I would be the worst possible candidate for complementary medicines. The sort of the hands on type things and the funny drugs... well not funny drugs but I mean I know there's natural remedies and I'm sure natural remedies work but the crystals and all that sort of thing, certainly wouldn't work with me because mentally I wouldn't let them work, I don't think.  

Acupuncture, I'm not sure about that. I'm sure that wouldn't work with me because I can't see how it would work. Anything that can't be explained in a scientific way just wouldn't work with me.

So would you rather follow the traditional route of what we call in our society palliative care?

Yes. I'd like treatment that has been tried, tested and has shown how the treatment works.

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.


She followed a non-dairy diet and felt more energetic.

View full profile
Age at interview: 65
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 57
You said you thought that the book had helped you and the diet, can you talk a bit about that?

Yes. The lady who wrote the book is a scientist and so is her husband and she'd had oestrogen led breast cancer as I had done and she'd actually been in the same hospital and so I felt I had... I felt sympathetic with her to start with and then as I read the book I began to think that everything that she was saying it made... it spoke to me it really did because some books you read them and you know that they're not telling the whole truth but I felt that she was being totally honest and that she'd really researched this carefully. 

And I thought I'll give it a try and it's soya based so that she recommends you not having anything at all with dairy food in it and that means being very careful and making sure that you don't eat anything that's maybe just got a tiny trace of dairy food in it.She doesn't eat beef because she says she doesn't want dairy-fed cows you know, but she said that she had got better and she had been told she was terminal. 

She'd had chemotherapy and then she and her husband discovered that the Eastern women who have kept to their traditional diets had... the incidents of breast cancer among them was so low as to be none - it didn't happen, and she said that where the people she had spoken to had kept to the diet they survived and the people who thought or were tempted by yoghurt or something diary, died.

So when did you start changing your diet?

The minute I found that third tumour.

And how long ago was that?

That was last year, so it was about a year ago.

And what have you noticed has happened since then because of that change?

I'm much more confident I think because I've cut out so many things that introduce a kind of fog with me. A mental fog that has gone now so that, because I have a totally different way of eating and I'm eating a lot more fruit and a lot more vegetables which are very good for you and I'm feeling much more energetic as a general rule and I think that's what's leading to this feeling of confidence.


She decided to follow a special diet after reading a book on the subject.

View full profile
Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 52
Over the period of five years I've looked at Reiki and reflexology, but the other area which I picked up on after about twelve months was the area of diet. I heard about a person called Patrick Holford and he has done a lot of research to back up this work on diet and cancer and what affects it and what doesn't affect it. 

So I went on a day seminar with him and was extremely inspired and tried as far as possible, again taking on board another theory which is that you should eat according to your blood group, so if you take your blood group along with the different kinds of diet and then try things for yourself, things that will suit you and make you feel good... So we got Patrick Holford.

So did you do that?

Did I do that? Yes. Oh yes I think... that's what I was going to say is that it's the ones that... I'm actually a hunter gatherer because I am an O positive group, and therefore it isn't really wrong full stop to have meat but I am very careful where I have my meat from and make sure that I know the source of  where it's come from or make sure that it's organic. 

So as far as it's possible organic food is top of the list. If you can't get organic then you can get other things and wash them carefully and what have you, but if you can use organic foods you do and I try to do without a lot of wheat or dairy. 

So therefore instead of having milk I've had soya and soya products which have got just as much calcium in as milk has and okay beef is dairy but if I really feel like a piece of steak then I'll have a piece of steak because my body is telling me something so that's how I handle it, without feeling guilty, because I think a lot of people feel guilty about them giving themselves the cancer by what they are putting in their body.

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.


She found aromatherapy and reflexology very relaxing.

View full profile
Age at interview: 63
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
Yes. There was a day room, there was absolutely everything there, including the the beauty side. I had aromatherapy or reflexology every day.

Could you say a bit about those two things please?

Oh wonderful! The young lady came in after I'd had my bath and I would lay flat on the bed and she would massage me with oils and that was so relaxing, so, so relaxing. And I would usually have that in the afternoon, before afternoon tea. So I'd have a little sleep and then they'd tap on the door with my tea and cake which I've never had because it's fattening and it's got me in to a bad habit because I now have afternoon tea.

Could you choose which oils you had?

Yes, yes I could yes. I did have one of my own but I don't think she approved of that so she used her own, yes.

That's the aromatherapy?

Yes. Yeah.

Did you say you had reflexology as well?

I did.  Yes.

Could you explain to people who don't know what that is?

Where they massage the feet. I've got that right haven't I?

Was it the same lady who did the - ?


- the aromatherapy?

Did the feet? Yes. And I know it sounds... it probably sounds silly to a lot of people but you could feel, once she put her hands on your feet and like started to massage your big toe, you could feel the sensations coming up your legs and you could feel your body sort of draining away from all the tensions and... Yes I would like to have that regularly every day, that would be lovely.

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.


She explains what happens during Reiki and says that it makes her feel good.

View full profile
Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
It's universal energies that comes through... comes through him [the therapist]. We start off with the atmosphere which is the music and relaxation.He goes through the relaxation of breathing, you know you breathe in the light and exhale the dark and then... I mean most of the time I've got my eyes shut so I don't really know what he actually does but it's... 

he doesn't touch me. 

It's not a laying of hands. He like hovers his hands over the top and goes down my body and back up again and it just brings the energies into me.He says he can feel hot spots on some places where he'll put his hands just over my body and it can get very hot which is you know sometimes where my illness is.

And you say you're finding that beneficial?

I do. Very much so. Yes.

Could you put it into words how you find it beneficial?

I think it's probably with the relaxation but also the energy I find that I get from it. 

I feel a lot brighter once I've had it. I mean it could just be that I'm sitting down and lying still with my eyes shut for an hour instead of chasing the children round you know? It could be that. But it's just... 

I do feel good from it. I do feel good. Yeah.

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.

Text onlyRead below

She explains what visualisation involves.

View full profile
Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 49
Have you tried any complementary therapies up till now?

No. The only ones I've had... my friend has healing hands and when I go up to London she'll heal, you know, we sit there and the heat... I could feel the heat from her hands on my stomach and she says she feels the tingling and she gets it back and that very much relaxes me. I have massage, I have reflexology. 

We do each other so that I have that on but I haven't actually tried any of the other complementary things but I very much believe in it and I will be trying a lot more.

Would you like to explain a bit more about the visualisation? What do you visualise?

You actually relax first. You relax completely and you try to visualise a white light. Now I look at the sun I can actually look at the sun and get that sort of white light in your eyes, which is not good for your eyes but I can sort of get that and I can hold that in, and I find that for me is the best way, and it's hovering over your head or hovering here in front of your eyes and then you sort of take that in and you either try and visualise it as a light or something good.Now I could visualise it as a white blood cell or the neutrophils, that's what I can picture. I mean I've got the picture in my anatomy book, and that's what's going in  and that's what's going to cleanse my body. So I used to try and picture it as these white blood cells and take them in and my husband would go over, relate it with me and we would go through the brain and through the arms and then go right through and into the stomach and attack there.  

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


She found great support from a healing group and from other people's prayers.

View full profile
Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
I haven't got a particular religious beliefs, although I do feel I have a spiritual life and...so I wasn't the there was no sort of fear about it I mean, you know... but it wasn't a huge dimension not at all. Although one thing I found very useful, very helpful and supportive was what other people's beliefs brought to me. A friend of mine did a regular Reiki healing with me and a couple of friends gave me crystals that had been personalised for me and all sorts of things like that and I joined a healing group and got an immense amounts of support, huge amounts of support. 

And I don't I mean... I cannot say what it is within the healing group that makes you feel twenty times better when you come out than when you went in, but it does, you know. So there are lots of things like that around, so I'm not doing all this on my own. I don't feel like this wonderful person who can cope with all this, you know? There's this huge network across the globe. I've had prayers said in so many different countries.  I can't tell you and I think, 'Oh we don't deserve these'. And across every religion and it's wonderful. You realise what part of a huge community you are and how many people in every continent... oh crikey yes, I'd forgot about such a person and then somebody would find out you know someone who knows you who lives in deepest Africa will eventually find out and make contact in some way, even it's though it's just to say "I thought about you watching the sun come up today I'm thinking positive things", you know, and it's just wow. 

And it's so nice in a way. You know when people die everybody says, 'Oh that was so nice and do you remember when they did this and did that and you know they were a really nice person'. They don't tend to say it to you face to face but when you get dead ill they do. Then they'll write you a letter or they'll say you know, "I remember when you helped me". Or they'll send you a flower and it's like having your memorial before you're dead and it's very reaffirming. It makes you feel good and I believe in the power of those things to help you heal.

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.


She tried a number of complementary approaches including Reiki.

View full profile
Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
Well, I mentioned the cancer support group that I go to and three or four of the ladies there are trained Reiki healers. So there, at the end of the morning we sit in a circle. We all hold on to our dressing gown cord... actually a cord that's in a... binds us together as it were and close our eyes and light a candle and its all very peaceful. And they go round us individually putting their hands on our shoulders and you know... as I understand it. I don't really understand it to be honest. 

But they are using themselves to transmit cosmic earth energy or whatever you like to call it which seems to have healing powers. Now, as I say, I'm not... well I think I am quite a spiritual person in a way but I would have been quite sceptical about that but now the attitude I take is, 'Look I've no idea what's doing me good here but something is'. 

So I keep on doing all of them as best I can because I don't want to, you know... it would just be my luck to knock out the things or stop taking the vitamins... I can remember a friend who had a very serious illness and she wasn't particularly well off and she used to say, 'I spend, I think it was '20 a week or '20 a month on vitamins'. And I remember thinking to myself, 'well good for you but you're probably wasting your money really' because she had a terminal illness and indeed she did die. 

Well I now do the same thing myself really and it means I am silly but I don't know. I'm really happy to swallow down several different vitamin tablets in the hope that that's improving me.And I have to say I do some of these things without the advice of my GP or any of the others. I haven't particularly said, 'I'm taking these'. That's why I think it's a good thing to have this sort of [information] available on the Web because if you live where I do, you almost certainly wouldn't have advice about diet, vitamins, healing... acupuncture I haven't tried but I might. 

So you know I sort of take the scatter gun approach and think 'well I'll do all of them because I don't know what's doing good.'  And the other thing is, I suppose, because you're feeling that you're doing something to help yourself, probably does help you.

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


He explains why he takes dried apricot seeds as an alternative therapy.

View full profile
Age at interview: 72
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 70
Can you tell me a bit more about why you're so convinced these [dried apricot seeds] are helping you? Some people might say it might have happened anyway.

Oh sure yeah. Well because after the seventh chemotherapy I went to see the specialist, the cancer specialist and she said... well, they scanned me and they said, 'Well your tumour's no smaller and it's no bigger so it looks as though we can control it and I suggest you have another course', and that's when I made up my mind I didn't want another course. I didn't want to do it so she said, 'Well come and see me again in three months' and every time I've been since she just says, 'We'll let well alone,' and now she doesn't want to see me for six months this time and my doctor was pretty much the same -  I mean she said, 'You know those things you're taking are poisonous don't you' so I said, 'I know they are but so is chemotherapy' and she said, 'Well you must be doing something right because you're still here'. 

The origin of the theory is that there is a tribe in the upper west Pakistan near the Himalayas called the Hunza people. A small tribe of people and one of their main diets is apricots because they help to grow them there and they've always eaten the seeds as well and they've... there's no cancer there. They've never had cancer and they live to considerable ages in spite of the fact that they live in a very harsh climate, and that's where the idea comes from and the chemical side of it, again I don't know, I'd have to refer to a book to tell you in detail, is that half of the, or part of the ingredient in the apricot seed, is cyanide. It's that and something else but the cyanide only splits if it meets cancer cells. If it meets a cancer cell it attacks it in your system in your blood stream, that's the theory, very very basically.

Last reviewed July 2017.

Previous Page
Next Page