These complementary therapies really do work…

A cancer diagnosis is always fraught with fear and anxiety—not to mention nagging questions about the best possible treatments.

Bridging the gap: While surgery, chemotherapy and radiation have long been the mainstay treatments for cancer, major cancer centers throughout the US now offer a variety of additional “complementary” therapies that help patients cope with a wide range of cancer-related problems.

Latest development: Recent studies continue to be added to the growing body of evidence supporting the use of such nondrug and nonsurgical therapies, which are used along with conventional cancer treatment.


Only a small number of complementary therapies have been thoroughly tested with randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials—the gold standard of scientific research. Some of these approaches have now been proven to work.

Common cancer symptoms that can be relieved with complementary approaches—some services may be covered by insurance, so check with your health insurer…

Less nausea. Nausea and/or vomiting are among the most common symptoms cancer patients have—and among the most feared. Antinausea medications help, but they’re not a perfect solution. That’s why they’re sometimes used in tandem with acupuncture, a complementary therapy that has been shown to be particularly effective.

Scientific evidence: When acupuncture was tested in a group of breast cancer patients being treated with a form of chemotherapy that’s notorious for causing nausea, those who were given acupuncture for five days had one-third fewer episodes of nausea than those who were treated only with medications that were used for nausea, such as lorazepam and diphenhydramine. Self-acupressure, in which patients merely press on certain points, such as the PC6 point on the wrist (without using needles), can also help.

To find the PC6 point: Turn your hand so your palm is facing up and locate the area, which is between the tendons three finger widths from the base of the wrist. Massage the area for four to five seconds…or longer, as needed.

Pain relief. Both gentle massage and acupuncture can reduce the pain that’s caused by cancer (such as bone cancer) and cancer treatments (such as radiation)—and sometimes allow patients to take lower doses of medication, which can help reduce troubling side effects, including constipation.

Scientific evidence: A study that looked at nearly 1,300 cancer patients found that massage improved their pain scores by 40%…and the improvements lasted for hours and sometimes days after the massage.

Imaging studies show that acupuncture also helps by deactivating brain areas that are involved in pain perception. In one study, patients with chronic cancer pain were treated with either auricular acupuncture (needles placed in the ear) or with sham treatments. After two months, patients in the acupuncture group reported reductions in pain intensity of 36% versus 2% in the placebo group.

Less fatigue. Only about 10% of cancer patients are physically active during treatment. But the vast majority can safely exercise before, during and after treatments…and exercise is among the best ways to reduce treatment-related fatigue.

Scientific evidence: When researchers at the University of Connecticut analyzed 44 studies focusing on patients with cancer-related fatigue, they found that those who exercised had more energy than those who were sedentary.

Any form of exercise seems to help. Yoga that focuses on gentle postures and breathing is good because it’s easy on the body and has been shown to reduce anxiety and other stress-related symptoms.

Bonus: Cancer patients who exercise tend to live longer than those who don’t stay active. A study of  more than 900 breast cancer patients found that those who engaged in brisk walking for two and a half hours a week—the same level of exercise that’s recommended for the general population—were 67% less likely to die during the nine-year study period than those who were sedentary.

Fewer hot flashes. Both men and women who have hormone-dependent cancers (such as breast and prostate cancers) often experience hot flashes when they’re given hormone-based treatments. Once again, acupuncture seems to help.

Scientific evidence: One study found that nearly 90% of patients with breast or prostate cancers who were given acupuncture had a reduction in hot flashes of nearly 50% that lasted at least three months.


Virtually all oncologists and respected cancer centers in the US now support the use of complementary therapies, such as acupuncture and massage, to help cancer patients cope with nausea, pain, anxiety and other symptoms. These and other complementary therapies are used in addition to conventional treatments. To find an evidence-based complementary oncology program: Look for a comprehensive cancer center at the National Cancer Institute’s website.

P_08_iStock_000047068612_Medium-massage-retVery important: When seeking complementary care, it’s vital that the practitioner (including massage therapists, acupuncturists, etc.) be properly trained to work with cancer patients. Getting therapy at a comprehensive cancer center helps ensure that.

Also crucial: Cancer patients should always talk to their doctors before taking any supplements (herbs, vitamins, etc.). They can sometimes interfere with chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. For more on specific supplements, go to Memorial Sloan Kettering’s website.