Complementary and Alternative Therapies

When treating a condition, there are often medications or procedures that are considered standard medical care. This can also be called mainstream care, Western medicine, or regular medicine, among other terms. For prostate cancer, standard medical care would include radiotherapy, chemotherapy, surgery, and hormone therapy. In addition to standard medical care, there is also complementary and alternative medicine. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, in general, complementary medicine refers to treatments used in addition to standard medical care, while alternative medicine is used instead of standard medical care.1

Taking an integrative approach to your care means utilizing both standard medical care options and complementary options. Physicians that take this approach may work with other types of professionals, such as massage therapists, nutritionists, and acupuncturists, among others.

When are complementary or alternative therapies used?

It has been estimated that almost a third of adults in the US, including healthy adults, practice some form of complementary therapy, with more cancer survivors than non-cancer survivors choosing these methods.2,3 In most cases, complementary medicine is used to help relieve side effects of treatment, or in attempts to strengthen the curative properties of a treatment. Alternative medicine is often used by individuals who want to treat a condition “naturally” or outside of Western medicine. It is important to note that designating a treatment as being natural does not make it safer or more effective.

Currently, there are no complementary or alternative therapies in existence that have curative properties on their own. The majority of complementary and alternative therapies are used to help remedy the side effects of treatment, such as using Cannabis to relieve nausea or vomiting during chemotherapy, or practicing yoga to aid in cancer-related fatigue.3-5

Do they work?

There is often controversy surrounding complementary and alternative medicine since there are very few, if any, large, controlled studies that demonstrate their benefits. It is also difficult to create randomized or placebo-controlled studies (meaning studies that have some individuals receiving a complementary treatment option, and others not receiving the treatment).5 For example, if a study is designed to determine the effects of receiving a weekly massage on decreasing stress and anxiety, it is fairly obvious to tell if you’re in the treatment group since you will be getting a massage. Knowing that you are receiving the treatment being analyzed may impact your perception on how it is making you feel.

Additionally, a basic principle of scientific research is to not knowingly cause harm to individuals. Since there is a basic standard of care for prostate cancer in mainstream medicine that has been proven to be effective in many cases, it is unethical to have individuals stop treatment and start an alternative treatment regimen that may make them worse or have no significant effect on their cancer. This could lead to delay in effective treatment and a higher chance of developing advanced or incurable cancer. However, despite these difficulties, there are many ongoing studies regarding complementary and alternative medicine that are testing different options in addition to the standard of care as well as in looking at retrospective (past) prostate cancer cases that utilized these methods on their own.1,3,5

Right now, the most concrete evidence points toward complementary or alternative medicine aiding in symptoms relief of different conditions, and not as a curative option. Additionally, these therapies can help improve overall quality of life and give a greater sense of control to an individual struggling with prostate cancer and its treatment.3,5

What are examples of complementary and alternative therapies?

Complementary and alternative therapies can come in many forms. These may include taking dietary supplements, making lifestyle changes (especially in regards to diet and exercise), and practicing therapies that improve the mind-body connection. The mind-body connection is the idea that our mind, including our emotions, mental health, and behavioral decisions, may have an impact on our physical health at the bodily level. Essentially, this means that practicing mindfulness or engaging in stress relieving activities can decrease an individual’s side effects of treatment, including pain management. This idea can be controversial, but several studies have shown that relieving stress can have wider-reaching effects than the mind only.1,6-8

Examples of complementary or alternative therapies include:

  • Yoga
  • Massage therapy
  • Faith or prayer
  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnosis
  • Chiropractic manipulation
  • Dietary changes (beginning a plant-based or low-fat diet)
  • Dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or probiotics)
  • Exercise
  • Cannabis
  • Essential oils or aromatherapy
  • Herbal supplements
  • Other “home remedies

This is not an exhaustive list of all potential complementary or alternative therapies. It is important to note again, that although many of these options may provide relief from side effects, there is no definitive proof that any of these have curative properties.

Should I try complementary or alternative medicine?

The best answer to this question is to consult your doctor. It is critically important to consult your healthcare team before you start a complementary therapy or stop mainstream treatment in order to practice alternative medicine. Stopping treatment can lead to progression of your cancer to life-threatening levels. Starting a new complementary therapy, especially a dietary or herbal supplement, may decrease the effectiveness of your current standard medical treatment. For example, St. John’s wort, a common medicinal herb used as a complementary therapy interacts with many medications and can actually decrease the effectiveness of some cancer-curing medications.1,9

If you are interested in a complementary or alternative therapy, it is important to do your research (from reputable sites, not advertisements) and talk with your provider. Many providers are not only open to the idea of utilizing complementary medicine, but they also may actually have relationships with other complementary therapy practitioners or experts. Additionally, you can also talk with nurses, social workers, and others who may work at or be affiliated with your cancer care center for references to complementary therapy locations or information. The most important thing is to keep an open line of communication with your health care team about whatever you are thinking about or interested in. Even if you decide to practice alternative medicine, it is still important to check in with your provider regularly to make sure that your cancer isn’t growing or spreading without standard treatment.

Written by: Casey Hribar | Last reviewed: October 2017
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