Holistic Treatments

Cancer Prevention and Treatment

People with cancer want to do everything they can to combat the disease, manage its symptoms, and cope with the side effects of treatment. Many turn to integrative health approaches—for example, herbal and other dietary supplements, acupuncture, massage, and yoga.

What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Complementary Health Approaches for Cancer
No holistic health product or practice has been proven to cure cancer. Some approaches may help people manage cancer symptoms or treatment side effects and improve their quality of life.

Incorporating Integrative Health Approaches Into Cancer Care

In 2009, the Society for Integrative Oncology issued evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for health care providers to consider when incorporating complementary health approaches in the care of cancer patients. The guidelines point out that, when used in addition to conventional therapies, some of these approaches help to control symptoms and enhance patients’ well-being. The guidelines warn, however, that unproven methods shouldn’t be used in place of conventional treatment because delayed treatment of cancer reduces the likelihood of a remission or cure.

Use of Complementary Health Approaches for Cancer

Many people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer use complementary health approaches.

• According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches by Americans, 65 percent of respondents who had ever been diagnosed with cancer had used complementary approaches, as compared to 53 percent of other respondents. Those who had been diagnosed with cancer were more likely than others to have used complementary approaches for general wellness, immune enhancement, and pain management.

Mind and Body Practices

Mind and body practices include a large and diverse group of procedures or techniques administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. For example
• Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body—most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.
• Massage therapy includes many different techniques in which practitioners manually manipulate the soft tissues of the body.
• Most meditation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or transcendental meditation, involve ways in which a person learns to focus attention.
• Movement therapies include a broad range of Eastern and Western movement-based approaches; examples include yoga and exercise programs.
• Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation, are designed to produce the body’s natural relaxation response.
• Tai chi and Qi gong are practices from traditional Chinese medicine that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus.
• The various styles of yoga used for health purposes typically combine physical postures or movement, breathing techniques, and meditation.

Other examples of mind and body practices include
healing touch and hypnotherapy.

According to the 2007 NHIS, several mind and body practices ranked among the top complementary health approaches used by adults. The mind and body practices most commonly used included deep breathing, meditation, chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation, massage, yoga, progressive relaxation, and guided imagery.

The amount of research on mind and body approaches varies widely depending on the practice. For example, acupuncture, yoga and meditation have had many studies, and some of these practices appear to hold promise in pain management, whereas other practices have had little research to date.

Other Complementary Health Approaches

The two broad areas—natural products and mind and body practices—capture most complementary health approaches. However, some approaches may not neatly fit into either of these groups—for example, the practices of traditional healers, Ayurvedic medicine from India, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Acupuncture, an over 2000-year old practice, is a key modality of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through the skin at specific points on the body. Traditionally trained acupuncturists believe this will balance the flow of energy or life force — known as Qi (chee), which flows along specific pathways or meridians throughout the body, restoring its health and balance.

Although to date, there is little scientific evidence to support this theory, modern science is beginning to examine how acupuncture works.  The specific mechanisms may depend on many factors, such as which points are used, how they are stimulated and what symptom is being treated.  This remains an active area of scientific investigation.

Some conditions for which studies have shown acupuncture may be beneficial when used in combination with conventional treatments include:
• Chemotherapy- induced nausea and vomiting
• Cancer and treatment related pain
• Peripheral neuropathies
• Dry mouth (Xerostomia)
• Hot flashes
• Fatigue
• Stress management

It is important to discuss with your healthcare team whether acupuncture would be beneficial and appropriate for you.

Acupuncture, an over 2000-year old practice, is a key modality of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through the skin at specific points on the body. Traditionally trained acupuncturists believe this will balance the flow of energy or life force — known as Qi (chee), which flows along specific pathways or meridians throughout the body, restoring its health and balance.

Although to date, there is little scientific evidence to support this theory, modern science is beginning to examine how acupuncture works.  The specific mechanisms may depend on many factors, such as which points are used, how they are stimulated and what symptom is being treated.  This remains an active area of scientific investigation.

Health Psychology may be beneficial to participants experiencing psychosocial distress or who wish to work on lifestyle changes.

Health Psychology may help:
• Promote physical and emotional wellness
• Improve quality of life
• Cope with the changes in your life
• Assist in adjusting to a cancer diagnosis and treatment
• Manage stress, anxiety and depression
• Increase relaxation
• Cope with grief and loss

Hypnosis (also called hypnotherapy) has been studied for a number of conditions, including state anxiety (e.g., before medical procedures or surgeries), headaches, smoking cessation, pain control, hot flashes in breast cancer survivors, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Exercise has been shown to be helpful in relieving many cancer and cancer treatment related symptoms. There is also a building body of evidence that exercise may play an important role in decreasing risk of developing new or recurrent cancers.Many participants are aware that exercise can be helpful but are unsure what kind or how much exercise will be safe for them. They often feel afraid to undertake, or return to, an exercise program because their bodies feel frail, weak, or just not like they used to, and they don’t know where to begin.It is important that a professional evaluate your current fitness level and work with you to develop a specific exercise plan that is safe and appropriate for your needs.

Some of the symptoms that exercise and physical activity can help relieve or manage include:
• Fatigue
• Deconditioning
• Weakness
• Balance problems
• Loss of appetite
• Sleep problems
• Anxiety/depression
• Weight changes

A form of complementary and alternative medicine based on the belief that vital energy flows through the human body. This energy is said to be balanced or made stronger by practitioners who pass their hands over, or gently touch, a patient’s body. Healing touch is being studied in patients receiving cancer therapy, to find out if it can improve quality of life, boost the immune system, or reduce side effects. Healing touch is a type of energy therapy. Also called therapeutic touch.

Tai chi, which originated in China as a martial art, is a mind and body practice. Tai chi is sometimes referred to as “moving meditation”—practitioners move their bodies slowly, gently, and with awareness, while breathing deeply.

Qigong (pronounced Chi or Chee gong) is a natural holistic system of self-healing and energy medicine from China that has been around thousands of years.  Using proper body alignment, natural abdominal breathing, gentle movement and focused mind intent; Qigong leads to improved health, vitality and a tranquil mind.

The following video is intended to be an educational tool that features tai chi and qi gong as an activity to enhance wellness. These exercise therapies are generally considered safe, self-care approaches used to promote a healthy lifestyle. As always, talk to your health care provider if you are using or considering using any CAM modalities so that they can help safely coordinate your care.

Tai chi, which originated in China as a martial art, is sometimes referred to as “moving meditation”—practitioners move their bodies slowly, gently, and with awareness.

Learn more about tai chi

NCCIH has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your primary health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCIH.
• Tai Chi and Qi Gong for Health and Well-Being Video ›
• Introduction and Background
• Warm-up
• Qi Gong
• Tai Chi
• Cool Down

Meditation is a mind-body practice that can help you relax and access a deeper awareness through connecting your mind, body and heart. Although meditation methods can vary, most types share common features including focused attention, regulation of breathing and managing thoughts and feelings that come to mind.

Meditation and Cancer Care
Research shows that mind-body practices, such as meditation, have a positive effect on quality of life and many biological processes such as immune function, hormone function, and more. With meditation, you will learn to relax, manage your stress, and access a deeper awareness by connecting your mind, body and heart. Meditation also leads to living a more mindful life, which has broad implications in all areas of our life.

Meditation may help:
• Decrease anxiety and negative emotions
• Improve sleep
• Improve memory and cognitive function
• Increase spiritual awareness and sense of well-being
• Regulate blood pressure and relax the body

What you eat matters. Extensive research shows, that eating a primarily plant-based, whole foods diet including a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains is beneficial for preventing disease and improving health.

The recent discovery of phytonutrients – compounds found in plant foods that help protect us from all types of disease including cancer – confirms that plant foods are important for cancer prevention, improving outcomes for those with cancer, and for optimal health.

Cancer and treatment-related side effects often interfere with a person’s ability to eat, resulting in fatigue and decreased quality of life.  Research shows that people with cancer who maintain their weight and muscles during treatment tend to recover and return to their usual activities more quickly once treatment is complete. Adequate nutrition is essential for preserving muscles and maintaining energy during this time.

Nutrition counseling and education is provided by a registered, licensed dietitian with advanced certification in oncology nutrition. Education emphasizes optimal health during and after cancer treatment by following a plant-based, whole foods diet.

Topics discussed may include:
• Managing treatment side effects
• Nutrition for treatment recovery
• Cancer prevention
• Lifestyle dietary change
• Weight management
• Addressing questions regarding organic foods, special diets, “super” foods, etc.

A treatment in which the soft tissues of the body are kneaded, rubbed, tapped, and stroked. Massage therapy may help people relax, relieve stress and pain, lower blood pressure, and improve circulation. It is being studied in the treatment of cancer symptoms such as lack of energy, pain, swelling, and depression.

Oncology Massage Treatment is the modification of existing massage therapy techniques in order to safely work with complications of cancer and cancer treatment.

Participants who receive cancer care, from those in active treatment to those in recovery or survivor-ship, as well as those at the end of life, are best served by a massage therapist who has received special training in oncology massage.

Massage involves the stroking, kneading or stretching of muscle groups. Evidence shows that massage can benefit many cancer participants and caregivers, both physically and emotionally.

Research suggests that stress-reduction programs tailored to the cancer setting, such as massage, may help patients cope with the side effects of treatment and improve quality of life after treatment. The use of massage therapy for cancer patients has become more common in recent years as a way to reduce pain, anxiety and nausea.

However, the National Cancer Institute urges massage therapists to take specific precautions with cancer patients and avoid massaging:
• Open wounds, bruises, or areas with skin breakdown
• Directly over the tumor site
• Areas with a blood clot in a vein
• Sensitive areas following radiation therapy.

Reiki is a complementary health approach in which practitioners place their hands lightly on or just above a person, with the goal of facilitating the person’s own healing response.
• Reiki is based on an Eastern belief in an energy that supports the body’s innate or natural healing abilities. However, there isn’t any scientific evidence that such an energy exists.
• Reiki has been studied for a variety of conditions, including pain, anxiety, fatigue, and depression.

An ancient system of practices used to balance the mind and body through exercise, meditation (focusing thoughts), and control of breathing and emotions. Yoga is being studied as a way to relieve stress and treat sleep problems in cancer patients.

Yoga is a mind and body practice with origins in ancient Indian philosophy. The various styles of yoga typically combine physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation. There are numerous schools of yoga. Hatha yoga, the most commonly practiced in the United States and Europe, emphasizes postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama). Some of the major styles of hatha yoga are Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vini, Kundalini, and Bikram yoga.

The 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that yoga is one of the top 10 complementary and integrative health approaches used among U.S. adults. An estimated 6 percent of adults used yoga for health purposes in the previous 12 months.