Evaluating Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2018

Research shows that some complementary therapies are safe and effective when used with standard cancer treatment. Complementary therapies can help people cope with the side effects of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and other treatments.

Alternative therapies are often promoted as options to use for cancer instead of the standard medical treatments. For example, instead of chemotherapy, some people promote taking a particular herb or supplement or avoiding specific foods. Alternative therapies are disproved or unstudied methods that do not treat cancer. And they may even be harmful.

Complementary therapies

Types of complementary therapies that can improve well-being include:

  • Physical activity

  • Nutrition

  • Acupuncture

  • Mind and body practices

Researchers continue to study various complementary therapies. Learn more about clinical trials evaluating complementary therapies.

Alternative therapies

People may refer to alternative treatments as natural. But "natural" does not necessarily mean "safe." For example, poisonous mushrooms are natural but not safe. And even relatively safe natural products can cause negative reactions in people.

Risks of alternative therapies

People who choose alternative methods over standard cancer treatment face these risks:

  • An alternative method may cause side effects. Or it may cause other drugs or supplements to not work as well.

  • The cancer may worsen while using an alternative therapy because it does not stop the cancer growth. And options for starting a standard treatment may become increasingly limited because of the severity of the cancer.

There are no effective replacements for standard cancer treatment. Consider these questions to help identify false claims about alternative cancer therapies:

  • Does this treatment promise to cure all cancers? If so, that is a red flag. No one treatment will work for every person or for every type of cancer.

  • Does the information come from a trusted source?

  • Does research published in scientific journals support these claims?

Learn more about cancer treatment fraud and how to evaluate cancer information online.

Questions to Ask The Health Care Team

Discuss all treatment options with your health care team. And consider asking the following questions:

  • What is the goal of the therapy?

  • Does the therapy work in combination with or replace a standard therapy?

  • If I use this therapy instead of a standard treatment, will it delay standard treatment? If so, could this delay be harmful?

  • Will this therapy affect my chances of receiving standard treatment later?

  • Does the person offering this treatment have a trustworthy medical license or credentials?

  • What research is available about this treatment’s safety and effectiveness?

  • What are the possible side effects from this therapy?

  • Will this treatment work for the type of cancer I have?

  • Is there a clinical trial for this therapy that I can join? 

Related Resources

More Information