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The use of Complementary Medicine in Cancer Care

The use of Complementary Medicine in Cancer Care

13 February 2020

Many patients with cancer seek Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs) during their cancer treatment (22% as an overall average, but up to 87% of women with breast cancer, and up to 50% of women with ovarian cancer). Interestingly, 40% of those patients using complementary therapies with cancer do not disclose this to their Oncologist.  *

This article explains what CAMs are and when they are appropriate, and ultimately aims to open up the dialogue between patients and their entire healthcare team, to create cohesive teamwork and seek the best outcomes for the patient and their loved ones.

What are Complementary Medicines, and how are they relevant in Cancer Care?

Complementary Medicines are mostly nutritional supplements, compounds and herbal medicines that are used as a complement to conventional (orthodox) medical treatment. 

Complementary Therapies refers to all modalities and allied health services that complement medical treatment, such as exercise, acupuncture, meditation and massage.

As a comparison: alternative therapies, on the other hand, are used instead of conventional treatment. Please note, at MIOG we do not recommend alternative therapies, and as an Integrative Oncology practice in Melbourne we aim to work alongside your Medical Oncology team to achieve the best treatment outcomes.

Complementary Medicines and Therapies are used to reduce treatment side effects and support the patients recovery and wellbeing, and there is plenty of research that shows the effectiveness of specific and targeted use of complementary therapies. There are however also some approaches that are unhelpful, 'fads' or downright dangerous. That's why any practitioner using or prescribing complementary medicines for patients with cancer must ensure safety and avoid any contraindications, and ensure their recommendations are backed by clinical research yet tailored to the individual patient's situation and needs.


What are the goals of using Complementary Medicines in Cancer Care?

  • Reduce treatment side effects
  • Enhance the effects of your treatment
  • Support recovery and wellbeing before, during and after your treatment
  • Reduce risk of recurrence

For more information about how Complementary Therapies can assist you during and after you cancer treatment, click here (link to blog: What is IO).

So why don't Medical Oncologists know more about this?

Simply for the fact that these therapies are not routinely taught in medical schools. The conventional medical model very much focuses on using medicine to treat disease, and Medical Oncologists are certainly experts at that. Medical schools however do not teach nutritional, herbal medicine or other Complementary Therapies for cancer, as this is not their focus (just like a carpenter doesn't learn about electrics, and vice versa).

This doesn't however discount either of those approaches as less important or less effective. The best approach is to work together as a well rounded and informed healthcare team to achieve the best outcomes for the patient.

My Oncologist says 'there is no evidence' to support Complementary Medicines for cancer - what now?

Funding for research for Complementary Medicines is very limited, compared to drug studies funded by large pharmaceutical companies. For this reason, there are fewer studies and they are not as widely promoted and marketed.

However this does not reduce their validity. There is a growing body of evidence that shows strong support for using selected Complementary Therapies, especially if they are safe, natural, do no harm, and have shown significant benefits for patients with cancer. Particularly in the last 5-10 years, research into Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care is increasing exponentially.

Reality is, we need more clinical trials to gain more knowledge and research in this area. Ask your Oncologist and nursing team about current available clinical trials that focus on Complementary Therapies and Medicines. 

My Oncologist says it could be dangerous to take Complementary Medicines during treatment.

The biggest concern around taking Complementary Medicines during treatment is around potential interaction with medical treatment. Some CAMs can actually interfere with the efficacy of chemotherapy agents, for example by inhibiting or enhancing important pathways or by increasing the rate of detoxification. Similarly, as the focus of treatment is often on creating oxidative stress and damage to cells (the cancer cells), everything that could potentially be an anti-oxidant is instantly discouraged.

However, it's important not to lump all Complementary Medicines into the same category. Not all antioxidants are the same - they can work on a multitude of different pathways to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, and some in fact have been shown to actually enhance the treatment outcomes.

The important message here: Work with an experienced practitioner who is abreast of the most current research. Someone who backs their recommendations by clinical research yet tailors their approach to the individual patient. And someone who is willing to communicate with your Medical Oncology team to create a cohesive, integrative approach.

Where do I find reliable information?

Some Complementary Therapies are very useful to support patients with cancer in an Integrative Oncology setting, whilst others are not. It is important to choose practitioners who are qualified and experienced in this niche field, and who can adequately assess applicability and safety of these therapies. MIOG certainly has a range of highly experienced and knowledgeable practitioners, who keep abreast of the latest research in Integrative Oncology. Please call us to find out more information.

* https://canceraustralia.gov.au/publications-and-resources/position-statements/complementary-and-alternative-therapies

About the Author: MIOG support team

At MIOG, all staff are qualified practitioners, including our valued receptionists and administration support team. With Bachelors of Health Science in either Naturopathy or Nutritional Medicine, the team are educated and experienced, with valuable insight into nutritional, herbal, and lifestyle interventions for oncology care.

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MIOG offers evidence-based Complementary Medicines to patients with cancer: before, during and after medical treatment. MIOG staff are not Medical Oncologists. MIOG recommends that patients with cancer consult a Medical Oncologist for appropriate support.


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  • Clinical Oncology Society of Australia
  • Society for Integrative Oncology
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology
  • Australasian Integrative Medicine Association
  • Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society