Sarah Cannon - December 05, 2018

Sami Mansfield, Director of Oncology WellnessComplementary medicine is defined as practices or supportive therapies that can help reduce the symptoms and the side effects related to cancer. Sami Mansfield, Director of Oncology Wellness at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health , shares information about the different types of complementary medicine, how they can be helpful to people facing cancer and what to know before beginning to incorporate these types of therapies into a care plan.

What is complementary medicine?

Complementary medicine is used as a supplement to conventional medicine and is sometimes referred to as integrative medicine. Complementary medicine is not alternative medicine, which refers to unconventional therapies and practices used to treat cancer.

Complementary medicine may include herbal supplements when appropriate, interventions such as breathing and mediation and therapies like acupuncture and massage.

How can complementary medicine be helpful for someone facing cancer?

  • Herbal supplements may be used to help reduce certain side effects related to cancer. For example, American ginseng, was shown to improve cancer-related fatigue (CRF) in cancer patients over an eight week time period.
  • Intervention techniques such as mindfulness and breathing may help with anxiety and sleep problems related to cancer. There are online tools and resources available for breathing and meditation exercises, including guides from UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness and National Sleep Foundation, as well as free apps such as Calm and Inscape.
  • Knowledgeable practitioners, including acupuncturists and massage therapists who have experience working with cancer patients, may be able to help with issues like pain management and lymphedema.
  • Exercise such as tai chi, yoga, muscle building workouts and resistance training may also help reduce the symptoms and side effects related to cancer. An American College of Sports Medicine roundtable determined that exercise can lead to “improvements in physical functioning, quality of life, and cancer-related fatigue in several cancer survivor groups.”

What should patients do, or be aware of, before incorporating complementary medicine into their treatment plan?

If you are interested in introducing complementary medicine into your care plan, it is important that you speak with your primary oncologist and nurse navigator to understand both the benefits and any potential risks. 

  • Partnering with practitioners: Speak with the practitioner first about his or her experience with cancer, and ask questions specifically related to the side effects that you are experiencing. If he or she does not have experience, ask to be referred to a professional who may be more knowledgeable about your specific needs.
  • Herbal supplements: You should always speak with your primary oncologist before beginning an herbs and supplements regimen to make sure that there isn’t anything that could cause a negative interaction.