12 Common Approaches to Complementary Cancer Therapy

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:

  1. Religious and spiritual approaches, such as 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.

  2. Psychosocial approaches, which 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.

  3. Nutritional approaches, including 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.

  4. Physical approaches, designed to relax, align, energize and strengthen the body. These include exercise; progressive deep relaxation; massage; chiropractic or osteopathic therapies; mind-body disciplines such as yoga, qi gong or tai chi; and hands-on energy therapies such as Reiki.

  5. 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.

  6. Herbal treatments for cancer, some contemporary and some 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 anti-cancer agents.

  7. Unconventional pharmacological treatments, which 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. Still, practitioners make strong -- and unethical -- claims as to their success rate in fighting cancer. 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.

  8. Electromagnetic therapies, which 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. These therapies are not widely used by American cancer patients, but some of the work deserves careful scientific evaluation.

  9. The unconventional use of conventional or conventional-experimental cancer therapies, which 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.

  10. Esoteric therapies, such as the use of crystals for healing or the practices of psychic surgeons in the Philippines. Most scientists find these therapies implausible -- or at least difficult to rationalize. The psychic surgeons in the Philippines claim they can reach their hands into the body to remove tumor material or other sources of disease. In Brazil, a comparable school of psychic healers has emerged. Many American cancer patients have sought treatment from these psychic practitioners.

  11. Alternative diagnostic and treatment instruments, such as dark-field microscopes widely used by alternative cancer therapists to diagnose cancer.

  12. Humane approaches to cancer, which 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 12 categories adhere to this approach. The Anthroposophical hospitals in Switzerland and Germany are well known for incorporating this philosophy in their practice.


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