Complementary Medicine

Complementary Medicine

Complementary medicine is generally defined as a collection of non-mainstream approaches to medical problems that supplement conventional or “Western” methods. It is different from alternative medicine, which is defined as an approach that replaces conventional medicine with non-standard treatments and techniques. This approach is less common in healthcare. Integrative medicine is an approach that combines both complementary and conventional practices in an established, systematic way to address medical problems. Integrative medicine has worked well with pain management, stress reduction, relief of symptoms from medical treatments and wellness programs that support healthy living.

Complementary medicine can include natural products and mind/body integration practices. Natural products include herbs/botanicals, vitamins, minerals, and probiotics. Often classified as dietary supplements, these are widely available, marketed for profit, and the most common type of complementary medicine used. It is important to understand the safety of these natural products, including whether or not they interact with any other treatments that your provider has prescribed. There have been some natural products to reduce hot flashes or body aches that have been associated with reducing the effects of certain treatments for breast cancer. Some dietary supplements may increase bleeding associated with surgery. Other natural products may limit the effectiveness of radiation or chemotherapy. So, it is important to share any natural products you use with your health care providers prior to surgery or a new treatment.

In addition to dietary supplements, attention to nutrition is increasing. How we eat affects how we feel and how we maintain our strength during treatments. When specific diet plans are set up around a patient’s treatments, this may be considered complementary therapy. Often, the dietician or nutritionist is consulted to discuss this very important topic.

Mind and body practices include acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, hypnotherapy, relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, massage therapy, meditation and mindfulness practices. Mindfulness and relaxation activities often help with sleep difficulties, hot flashes, stress with family/work and fear of cancer recurrence. Yoga reduces persistent pain following surgery, decreases fatigue, supports bone/muscle strength to reduce osteoporosis, improves body acceptance and helps with sleep disorders. The availability and use of these methods have increased, and many people with a new cancer diagnosis want to utilize these approaches during their treatment and beyond to minimize symptoms, maintain a peace of mind, and heal from their treatments more smoothly.

Practitioners such as naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, traditional healers, Ayurvedic specialists and traditional Chinese medical practitioners may support a patient with a new diagnosis, address symptoms and side effects of treatment and support the immune system during and after treatment. Some patients already have an established relationship with an alternative provider prior to a cancer diagnosis. These practitioners may be integrated into the cancer team during the patient’s workup, treatment and follow up.

To help patients with decision-making, practitioners from conventional and non-conventional methods have continued to work on improved communication and integration to best serve each patient. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was created in 1998 to develop scientific research on complementary medical practices to promote an evidence-based approach to define the usefulness and safety of non-conventional options for the public.

The Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO) under the American Society of Clinical Oncologists reviewed the evidence of integrative therapies during and following breast cancer treatment and created a guideline of recommendations. Music therapy, meditation, stress management and yoga are recommended for anxiety and stress reduction, as well as depression/mood disorders. Meditation and yoga were shown to improve quality of life. Acupressure and acupuncture reduced chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

As complementary medicine becomes more widely accepted by the public and within conventional medical spheres, there is more scientific research investigating the value and use to help treat medical diseases, minimize symptoms and optimize wellness. You may learn more at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (, contacting your local cancer center or asking your health care providers.