Cancer and complementary therapies

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Cancer treatment can sometimes just seem one hard slog – the cancer cells may be being hit, but the various side effects, emotional angst, and complete life changing routine (however temporary) can all be recipes for feeling low in mood at times (to put it mildly).

For some, it’s the day to day living with cancer that sometimes takes its toll. Not always, of course, because ultimately life generally does pick up a sense of normality again – although not always immediately post treatment, and that can be a shock sometimes.

There may also those among you who may have a cancer which is here to stay – being held back and suppressed, sometimes for a long time, but it sits there in the back of the mind whenever there’s a new niggle or ache.

What are complementary therapies?

We talk a good deal in Maggie’s, about taking control back, when dealing with a cancer, at whatever stage. Finding ways to help yourself deal with the cancer on a day to day basis, and keep in the best health you can, for as long as you can. Nutrition, exercise, information, mindfulness, etc, all can help.

What place do complementary therapies have here? I think it’s best to know what I’m defining by complementary therapies first. NHS website defines these as ‘therapies which can be used alongside conventional cancer treatments. They can sometimes improve a person’s quality of life by helping them cope better with their cancer symptoms or the side effects of their cancer treatment’. This may include a wide range of therapies – acupuncture, yoga, reflexology, counselling, massage, music therapy…anything that can help relax, relieve stress and pain, and help the body and mind cope with the cancer treatments and beyond.

Something that most people in mainstream medicine would not advocate, and is not in my remit today, are alternative therapies. These are ‘therapies which are generally used instead of conventional medical treatment. All conventional cancer treatments have to go through rigorous testing by law in order to prove that they work. Most alternative therapies have not been through such testing and there is no scientific evidence that they work. Some types of alternative therapy may not be completely safe and could cause harmful side effects’ (Cancer Research UK.)

Key points to consider about complementary therapies

If you're considering complementary therapies there are a few things to consider:-

  •  It's important to let your medical team know that you’re thinking of having a therapy. They are can be a helpful add on to helping smooth your cancer treatment pathway, but some do interact with the treatments being given so it’s best to check first. (This also goes for alternative therapies).
  • Vice versa, always let your complementary therapist know you’re on cancer treatment or have a cancer diagnosis. If you’re going to a spa day, as a treat, for example - phone them up beforehand, and see if they have any problems with you accessing any of their treatments. In reality, most treatments are perfectly safe, but some massage therapists etc, are reluctant to treat anyone with a cancer. (This is sometimes under the misguided perception that massage etc, can somehow spread the cancer cells around the body, but there is no evidence of this – in fact most hospices and many cancer centre hospitals do provide complementary therapies as part of holistic care.) Sometimes you may be asked for a doctor's letter to confirm it's OK to have treatments.
  • Finding a therapist – this may take some homework on your part. It’s important to know if they’re comfortable and experienced dealing with someone with cancer, and if they are suitably qualified. Reputable and experienced therapists should be registered with, and following codes and ethics of their professional organisations.
  • Ask at your local hospital, GP surgery or Maggie’s Centres to see if there are any therapies offered within or near the hospital. Whilst personal recommendations for private therapists can’t be made, you can find out if it’s offered as an add on in the hospital, GP surgery or local cancer support centres.
  • Check any fees beforehand – this sounds logical, but you need to be factoring in the cost, at a time when finances may be tighter than usual.

You’ll find a good guide to ‘finding a therapist’ on Cancer Research UK’s website.

Finally, if you’re someone in a caring role, many complementary therapies can be a stress reliever, and relaxant, and help cope with what life is throwing at you. Again, if you’re under medical treatment, or have an underlying health condition, do check with your doctor and your therapist.

You can ask about complementary therapies when/if you visit one of our Maggie's Centres.  We offer a range of activities, relaxation, yoga, Tai Chi, nutritional advice, as well as emotional support and workshops - all of which could be described as complementary therapy, as they're designed to help you get through and face the cancer and its effects. Here online, you can read our blogs and join in conversations, about various subjects too.

Hoping this information, although brief, has been helpful,

Warm wishes


Updated April 2020


Complementary and alternative medicine      -        NHS Choices

About complementary therapies    - Macmillan Cancer Support

The difference between complementary and alternative therapies   -   Cancer Research UK

Finding a therapist     -   Cancer Research UK

Find complementary therapists      NHS

Types of complementary therapies      Cancer.Net

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