With so little scientific evidence proving the effectiveness of complementary cancer therapies, how do you best choose among them? By understanding the ideas behind each type of therapy. Below is a brief explanation of 12 common approaches to complementary cancer therapies:
Religious and spiritual approaches. Examples are prayer, laying on of hands, or beliefs about the religious and spiritual realm. Some studies suggest that religious practices are associated with better health outcomes. Other literature discusses the benefits of intercessory prayer and other forms of faith-based healing.
Psychosocial approaches. These may address both mental and emotional aspects of cancer. Psychological approaches include support groups, individual psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, imagery, art therapy, and types of self-analysis and self-expression, such as structured journal writing. Social factors include social support networks and participation in a wide range of social and community activities.
Nutritional approaches. Examples include special diets and nutritional supplements. These therapies range from following a basic, healthy vegetable-based diet to adopting highly restrictive diets and supplement programs. Restrictive diets, which often involve limiting fat and calories, hold promise in cancer treatment. They can be dangerous, however, if they result in uncontrolled weight loss. Such diets should only be undertaken with proper medical supervision. A growing number of scientific studies show that certain nutritional supplements show potential for treating and preventing cancer. Other supplements, however, may promote the development of cancer or even worsen existing cancers. This is a very complex area of research.
Physical approaches. These are designed to relax, align, energize, and strengthen the body. They include exercise; progressive deep relaxation; massage; chiropractic or osteopathic therapies; mind-body disciplines, such as yoga, qi gong or tai chi; acupuncture; and hands-on energy therapies, such as Reiki.
Traditional medicines from around the world. The World Health Organization has officially recognized traditional medicines as the primary form of medical treatment for most of the world's people. Many of these traditional medicines offer treatments for cancer that have been used for thousands of years. Some of the most ancient types include Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic Medicine from India, Traditional Tibetan Medicine, and medicinal treatments from indigenous peoples in the Americas, in Africa, in Europe, and in Asia.
Herbal treatments for cancer. Some are contemporary and some are derived from traditional medicines. There is a large and growing mainstream research literature on herbal therapies. Some herbs hold clear promise for cancer treatment and others may be harmful. Inconsistency in the purity of herbal treatments sold in the United States is a major problem, since the market is largely unregulated. Some herbal remedies do not contain what their label says, and others are laced with powerful conventional medicines or toxic substances. Nonetheless, some herbal treatments hold great potential as promising anticancer agents.
Unconventional pharmacological treatments. These treatments represent a large and diverse field of complementary cancer therapies. Unconventional pharmacological cancer therapies are a field that remains poorly regulated in the United States and elsewhere. Unconventional therapies lack sound data on their effectiveness, safety and purity. Some of the most notorious therapies use secret formulas. Practitioners claim the secrecy is necessary to prevent mainstream medicine from suppressing or taking over their treatments. Some unconventional pharmacological treatments may hold promise, but rigorous scientific testing must first be conducted.
Electromagnetic therapies. These therapies represent an intriguing approach to cancer treatment. Therapies range from the simple use of magnets, as an adjunct to Traditional Chinese Medicine, to sophisticated electromagnetic techniques. While not widely used by American cancer patients, some of the work deserves careful scientific evaluation.
The unconventional use of conventional or conventional-experimental cancer therapies. These begin with what mainstream medicine calls variations in medical practice. For example, there is a whole continuum of cancer treatments that start with the dramatic differences among conventional treatments for breast cancer. At a certain point, these variations are deemed beyond the pale of current conventional therapies, and so are considered unconventional. Examples of promising but currently unconventional-experimental treatments include chronotherapies, in which surgery or chemotherapy is timed to coincide with cyclical changes in the bodies of cancer patients.
Esoteric therapies. Examples are the use of crystals for healing and the practices of psychic surgeons in the Philippines. Most scientists find these therapies unbelievable--or at least difficult to explain in a rational way.
Alternative diagnostic and treatment instruments. Dark-field microscopes are an example of such instruments widely used by alternative cancer therapists to diagnose cancer.
Humane approaches. These approaches to cancer are frequently promised, but not always delivered. The philosophical commitment to humane cancer therapies runs like a great river through the valley of complementary cancer therapies. Many individual practitioners in all these categories adhere to this approach. Anthroposophical hospitals in Switzerland and Germany are well-known for incorporating this philosophy in their practice.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine stresses that before starting complementary or alternative treatments, it's important to talk with your health care providers. This will help keep your cancer care coordinated and safe. Keep in mind that some alternative treatments like nutritional therapies interfere with standard cancer treatments. Giving your health providers a truthful picture of what complementary therapies you are using, or thinking of using, will help ensure that your cancer treatments will be safe.