When you are diagnosed with cancer, you may be looking to take control of the situation by researching all the treatment options available. You may begin to look into alternatives to conventional treatments like chemotherapy.
In some cases, complementary therapy can help ease symptoms caused by the cancer or side effects caused by cancer treatment. But little is known about the effectiveness of using alternative treatments as the sole treatment for cancer.
Before you decide on a treatment plan, you should speak to your cancer team about the options you have available.
This article explores alternatives to chemotherapy.
The Problem With Chemotherapy
The number of patients who make the decision not to use chemotherapy as a cancer treatment is not well known. Studies have reported rates of less than 1% for patients who refused all conventional treatment and 3% to 19% for patients who refused chemotherapy partially or completely.
But why would anyone choose to not go ahead with chemotherapy if it was recommended by their oncologist? The side effects can be numerous and include:
- Hair loss
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Anemia (low red blood cell counts)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Appetite changes
- Mouth, tongue, and throat problems such as sores and pain with swallowing
- Skin and nail changes such as dry skin and color change
- Urine and bladder changes, and kidney problems
- Weight changes
The side effects and degree to which they’re experienced vary largely from person to person and are dependent on the type of chemotherapy drugs received.
Chemotherapy vs. Radiation
The major difference between chemotherapy and radiation is the way the treatments are delivered. Chemotherapy is delivered through an infusion into a vein or medication port, or it can be taken orally. With radiation therapy, beams of radiation are focused on a specific area in your body.
Radiation therapy is a treatment that uses high-energy X-rays (or proton beams) to destroy cancer cells. Short-term side effects of radiation therapy often include redness (like a sunburn), inflammation of the area which receives radiation, and fatigue.
Potential Benefits of Alternative Medicine
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard medical care. People with cancer may use CAM to:
- Help cope with the side effects of cancer treatments, such as nausea, pain, and fatigue
- Comfort themselves and ease the worries of cancer treatment and related stress
- Feel that they are doing something to help with their own care
- Try to treat or cure their cancer
You may hear the term “holistic medicine” referred to in cancer treatment. Holistic care treats the whole person: mind, body, and spirit. That typically means a combination of conventional and complementary medicine.
What Is CAM for Cancer?
The prevalence of CAM use among cancer patients has been rising over the last few decades. The terms “alternative” and “complementary” are used to describe many kinds of products, practices, and treatments.
Alternative therapy refers to non-standard treatment used in place of standard treatment, while complementary therapy usually means methods used along with standard treatment.
Alternative and complementary therapies are often appealing because they use your own body, your own mind, or things that may be found in nature. But sometimes these methods wrongly claim to prevent, diagnose, or treat cancer even when they have not been proven to work through scientific testing.
Some complementary methods have been studied and shown to help people feel better under a doctor’s care. Examples might include meditation to reduce stress, or acupuncture to reduce pain and nausea.
Alternatives to Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is not the only way to treat cancer. A variety of different treatment options are available, some that may be used alone or in combination with other treatments.
- Surgery: With a few exceptions (such as blood-related cancers like leukemia), when surgery is an option, it offers the best chance to cure a cancer or at least significantly reduce the chance that it could recur.
- Targeted therapies: These are medications designed to target cancer cells specifically. As such, they are often less harmful to normal cells. Many of the more recently approved drugs for cancer are targeted therapies, and more are being evaluated in clinical trials.
- Immunotherapy: This is an exciting new approach to treating cancer. There are many different types of immunotherapy, but the commonality is that these drugs work by either altering the body’s immune system or by using products of the immune system to fight cancer.
- Active surveillance: Also called watchful waiting, this may be all that’s needed for certain types of cancers. Your doctor may recommend this approach if the cancer is at an early stage and is growing slowly or not at all.
Complementary and alternative therapy may include a wide range of treatments, including:
- Herbal and dietary supplements and vitamins: One large study found the CAM most commonly reported was vitamin use, with 66% of patients reporting use of at least one vitamin. Other herbal preparations included green tea, ginger, chaga mushroom, curcumin (turmeric), flaxseed oil, and probiotics. Some herbal medicines may be safe, but others can have severe and dangerous side effects or might interact with other cancer treatments you are taking.
- Spirituality: Many patients with cancer rely on spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to help them cope with their disease. This is called spiritual coping.
- Diet: There’s no diet that can cure cancer. There’s also no good research that shows that any eating plan, like a vegan diet, for example, can lower the chance of cancer coming back.
- Acupuncture: Some studies suggest acupuncture may help with mild pain and some types of nausea.
- Art therapy: This is a type of mental health care which, according to the American Art Therapy Association, seeks to improve or restore a patient’s functioning and sense of well-being, and may enhance their quality of life.
- Biofeedback: This uses monitoring devices to help people gain conscious control over physical processes that are usually controlled automatically, such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, sweating, and muscle tension.
- Massage therapy: This can increase alertness and decrease stress, anxiety, depression, and pain, according to some studies.
- Meditation: This may have several benefits for people living with cancer, including reduced anxiety and depression, reduced stress, greater energy, and a decrease in chronic pain among other symptoms.
Some CAM therapies have undergone careful evaluation and have been found to be generally safe and effective. However, others do not work, may be harmful, or could interact negatively with your medicines.
It is important to talk to your doctors before trying any CAM therapy.
Pros and Cons
Some CAM therapies are proven to help with the side effects of cancer and its treatment.
Some may help manage the emotional side effects of living with cancer.
Lifestyle changes such as healthy diet and exercise may be beneficial for body and mind.
Some CAM therapies do not work, may be harmful, or interact negatively with other medication.
CAM has not been scientifically proven to “cure” or “beat” cancer.
Refusing conventional medicine may shorten life expectancy.
Many people with cancer are afraid to discuss CAM with their doctor. It’s true that many doctors may not know about the uses, risks, and potential benefits of unconventional treatments. But this doesn’t have to stop you from discussing these with your doctor.
You can approach the topic in a number of ways:
- If you’re thinking of alternative treatment, let your doctor know what you’re considering. Ask them about any studies on this method and what options you might still have if the alternative treatment doesn’t work.
- Look for information from respected sources that you can trust regarding the potential benefits and risks of the treatment you are thinking about.
- Make a list of questions, and bring it along to your appointments with any other information you want to talk about.
- Listen to what your doctor has to say, and try to understand their point of view.
Once you have all the information, you can make a truly informed decision.
Cancer “Cure” Myths
Cancer is not a single disease, but an umbrella term for more than 200 distinct diseases, all with their own mutations and treatment needs. If a product or therapy is claiming to cure cancer, these claims need to be considered carefully.
Thousands of websites offer alternative therapies for cancer. The Federal Trade Commission has developed a list of claims that should make you suspicious of a website:
- Claims of a “scientific breakthrough,” “miraculous cure,” “secret ingredient,” or “ancient remedy”
- Claims that a product can cure a wide range of illnesses
- Stories of people who’ve had amazing results, but no clear scientific data
- Claims that a product is available only from one source, especially if you must pay in advance
- Websites that don’t list the company’s name, street address, phone number, and other contact information (It may exist only offshore, away from U.S. laws and regulators.)
Cancer is frightening, but accurate information is important—and organizations like the American Cancer Society have research-backed information available about treatments.
A Word From Verywell
If you have cancer and are interested in herbs, acupuncture, or other alternative treatments, talk to your doctor.
There are many complementary methods you can safely use along with standard treatment to help relieve symptoms or side effects, ease pain, and improve your quality of life. Speak to your doctor so you can choose methods that don’t cause harm and won’t interfere with your cancer treatment.
If you are looking to decline all conventional cancer treatments, you need to be aware of the pros and cons of doing so.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is chemotherapy the only cancer treatment option?
Chemotherapy is only one of many treatment options for cancer. Your treatment will depend on the type of cancer you have, the stage of the cancer (how far it has spread), and your overall health. Other treatment options include surgery, radiotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and complementary medicine.
What is the survival rate of fighting cancer without chemotherapy?
Survival rates are based on statistics that researchers have collected over many years about people with the same type of cancer. But each cancer and each patient is different, and chemotherapy is only one type of treatment, so this is difficult to predict.
How effective is holistic cancer treatment?
Holistic care treats the whole person: mind, body, and spirit. That typically means a combination of traditional and complementary medicine. For instance, a holistic way to treat cancer could include chemotherapy and acupuncture.
Complementary therapy has been found to be effective when used in combination with traditional therapy.