Complementary and alternative therapies for cancer

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Battling cancer is tough not only physically but mentally and emotionally, and more and more sufferers are turning to complementary and alternative therapies to help them cope with the disease. If you're unsure as to what these might involve, here are the basics.

What are they?
Though they're often clubbed together, complementary and alternative therapies are two separate entities. A complementary therapy is generally used alongside conventional medical treatment, while an alternative therapy is used in place of typical treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Complementary therapies are frequently used to improve a sufferer's quality of life and help them to cope with the side effects of the disease or the treatment. Alternative therapies are usually sought by those wishing to try something other than conventional treatment. However, the majority have not undergone the rigorous testing that conventional medicine is subject to, and as such there is no scientific evidence to suggest that they can cure cancer or improve the symptoms.

Complementary therapies
Research is ongoing into the effectiveness of complementary therapies commonly used by cancer patients, and though more studies are needed, many find that it helps them cope both emotionally and physically. Aromatherapy, acupuncture, traditional herbal medicines, massage therapy, visualisation and yoga are some of the most frequently used, and Cancer Research reports that up to one third of sufferers use some sort of complementary therapy.

Such treatments are used for a variety of reasons. For example, some are designed to aid relaxation and reduce stress, which many find invaluable when battling the disease. This can also help to boost the immune system. Others serve a physical purpose - acupuncture, for instance, can help to relieve the sickness caused by some chemotherapy drugs, or reduce pain after surgery. And in many cases, complementary therapies help patients to feel in control during what can be a frightening time, as well as keep them in a positive frame of mind.

Alternative therapies
Some cancer patients choose to try an alternative therapy instead of conventional medical treatment, either from their diagnosis or deciding to switch after starting conventional treatment. There are various methods or substances touted as effective cancer treatments, with laetrile, Gerson therapy and shark cartilage some of the more popular examples.

Laetrile was widely promoted as an anti cancer agent in the 1970s, thanks to the active ingredient amygdalin, a substance found in raw nuts and fruit pips. Some patients believe it improves their general health, detoxifies the body and promotes longevity. Shark cartilage is also thought by some to fight or control cancer, and is available as a food supplement in UK health food shops.

Gerson therapy, on the other hand, is an entire method, including a diet designed to rid the body of toxins and strengthen the immune system, and coffee or castor oil enemas.

However, there is little or no significant scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of any of the above against cancer, and patients should be cautious about any therapist who claims their alternative method will 'cure' the disease.

Complementary and alternative therapies are, of course, a matter of choice for the patient themselves, but before you embark on any such course of treatment, it is always advisable to speak to your doctor.

Have you tried a complementary or alternative therapy for cancer? Tell us about your experience below...
What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine