Being diagnosed with cancer is a difficult time and it may feel like things are out of control.

What you need to know

Your treatment team will offer you conventional treatments that are proven by scientific research to be safe and effective in treating or controlling cancer, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, immunotherapy and hormonal treatment.

Some people may choose to use complementary therapies or traditional healing (rongoā Māori) alongside conventional treatments to help manage cancer symptoms and the side-effects of treatment.

Please discuss with your treatment team if you are using or plan to use any complementary therapies, including any vitamins and minerals, as these can change how your cancer treatment works.

Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medicines and treatments. Alternative therapies can be harmful and may delay or stop the cancer being treated effectively.

There is no evidence that any type of complementary or alternative therapy prevents or cures cancer.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) definitions

It is important to understand how these terms are used as there are differences between what they mean.

COMPLEMENTARY THERAPY

Complementary therapies are used as well as conventional medical treatments for cancer. They include psychological and physical therapies. Some complementary therapies are proven to have benefits, such as relieving symptoms and side effects and improving quality of life.

Some complementary therapies that may help people living with cancer:

  • Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation therapies can help with cancer pain and support well-being
  • Yoga and Tai-chi may help with fatigue, sleep quality and/or anxiety
  • Music, art and talking therapies (including peer support groups) can support your emotional health
  • Massage and acupuncture may help with pain and nausea, depression and anxiety
  • Healthy living measures including eating a nutritious diet and doing gentle, regular exercise may help you maintain your weight during treatment, reduce fatigue and improve wellbeing
  • Complementary nutritional methods include eating a balanced, nutritious diet, talking to a dietitian for specialised advice or using ginger for nausea

Talk to your cancer treatment team if you are thinking about using a complementary therapy. They can advise you if it is safe to use alongside your conventional cancer treatment.

Make sure to use a qualified practitioner. Some therapists belong to professional organisations e.g., Massage NZ. This means they will have a set of standards to guide their practice.

TRADITIONAL HEALING (RONGOĀ MAORI / PASIFIKA HEALING)

Some people may think about adding traditional healing to their cancer treatment. In Aotearoa New Zealand, this includes aspects of Rongoā Māori and Pasifika traditional healing methods which have been used for generations. As with other treatment types, these may relieve symptoms, but they can also interfere with conventional cancer treatments.

ALTERNATIVE THERAPY

Alternative therapies are used in the place of conventional medical treatment. They may claim to cure or slow the growth of cancer. These are scientifically unproven and and if used instead of conventional treatment can cause serious problems and allow the cancer to spread. People who use alternative therapies without conventional treatment are more likely to die.

Some examples of alternative therapies are megavitamin therapy, diets that claim to treat cancer, coffee enemas, apricot kernels and alkaline water. These products can be harmful.

Talking to your doctor about CAM and traditional healing

Some people do not talk about CAM and traditional healing with their doctors because they are worried that their doctors may not support their choices. Most doctors understand that people want to look at options to support their physical and emotional health while they are having cancer treatment and are willing to talk about this.

Doctors can only prescribe medications or treatments that are tested and safe. They sometimes have concerns that people spend a lot of money on treatments that have no proven benefit or could even change how your conventional cancer treatment works. People may choose to delay their cancer treatment in favour of CAM and may miss the chance to get the best possible result from their treatment.

Finding more information

Your cancer treatment team may be able to give you a list of complementary therapists in your area. The internet can be used in your search for information on CAM, however, it is important that you base your decisions on information from a trustworthy source.

The Cancer Society of New Zealand suggests the following websites:

The suggested websites are not maintained by the Cancer Society of New Zealand. We only suggest sites we believe offer credible and reliable information, but we cannot guarantee that the information on these websites is correct, up-to-date, or evidence-based medical information.

Australian Cancer Council
Information about complementary therapies.

National Cancer Institute
Thinking About Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Guide for People With Cancer.

American Cancer Society
A very thorough overview of CAM with good information on treatments. Some good advice given to those searching for a CAM practitioner that translates well to the New Zealand setting.

The Society for Integrative Oncology
The mission of the Society for Integrative Oncology is to advance evidence-based, comprehensive, integrative healthcare to improve the lives of people affected by cancer.

National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health
This page on cancer and complementary health approaches provides a thorough overview of the key issues and outlines proven non/proven therapies.

Cancer Research UK
Find out more about the important difference between complementary and alternative therapies.

Download the CS booklet on Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Last updated: May 3, 2022