Care During Chemotherapy and Beyond

What is Complementary Medicine?

Complimentary Medicine

Complementary medicine is the term used here to describe additional forms of treatment that may be given along with chemotherapy and traditional Western medicine.

In the past, complementary medicine has claimed various types of "miracle" cures for cancer, which have since proved ineffective or even fraudulent. The integration of conventional and complementary medicine therapies however, is of increasing interest. This approach is being adopted at leading cancer treatment centers (such as Cleveland Clinic) and hospices and by self-help groups. Gentle therapies such as massage, relaxation, and other "healing" therapies play a major role in palliative care (symptom relief). Some patients find that complementary medicine, also called integrative medicine and/or holistic healing can help alleviate the side effects, pain and anxiety associated with chemotherapy and cancer treatments in general.

Sometimes complementary medicine is mistakenly referred to as "alternative therapy" or "alternative medicine," and it is important to distinguish between the two. Complementary medicine is recognized and approved by many health care professionals, whereas alternative therapy is not. Complementary medicine is given along with chemotherapy whereas alternative medicine is given in place of chemotherapy and includes non-approved, non-tested treatments that can be harmful.

No matter what type of complementary medicine you may choose to explore, the Cleveland Clinic recommends you consult your physician before beginning any form of additional therapy.

Types of Complementary Medicine Therapies:

Experts divide complementary medicine into five categories:

Sensory Complementary Medicine:

Sensory complementary medicine therapies are therapies that work in conjunction with the five senses: smell, site, taste, sound and touch, as well as the body's overall energy.

Aromatherapy: The theory of this complementary medicine therapy is that the essential oils are absorbed into the body either through the pores of the skin during massage, or by inhalation through the nose. The scents released by the oil act on the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that influences the hormonal system. Thus, in theory, a smell might affect mood, metabolism, stress levels, and libido. Clinical research into claims for the effects of essential oils on medical conditions is not extensive, but the psychological effects of smell have been studied more.

Some common essential oils used are chamomile, lavender, peppermint, rosemary, sandalwood and tea tree. There are conflicting reports regarding the properties and uses for oils, and responses to smells are highly personal.

Landscape Therapy is the showing of peaceful, relaxing landscapes to patients, scenes that evoke calm and tranquility. They may be shown in a darkened room via a slide show or video screen, or they may be shown in the form of art books or actual artwork. Landscape therapy is often used as a distraction technique to help manage pain and anxiety.

Music Therapy is an expressive art form designed to help individual move into harmony and balance. Music therapy can incorporate both listening to and/or playing music. Music therapists are professionals who are educated to design music programs for patients. Through the use of music, individuals explore emotional, spiritual and behavioral issues. Music therapy can help patients release emotions and relax. Listening to music can be either calming or invigorating.

Massage is a form of complementary medicine that relies on the body's nerve endings and pressure points to promote relaxation. There are many forms of massage: Shiatsu, Hellerwork, and Reflexology for example. However, the most widespread variation builds upon the five basic strokes of Swedish massage: effleurage (slow, rhythmic gliding strokes in the direction of blood flow towards the heart) petrissage (kneading, pressing and rolling muscle groups) friction (steady pressure or tight circular movements, often used around joints) percussion, (drumming hands on body) and vibration (rapid movement shaking the muscle back and forth).

There are many benefits to massage therapy for patients undergoing treatment for cancer. There are also concerns and possible risks. Massage therapy has been used to treat stress and anxiety, improve mood, induce relaxation, and control pain. For patients undergoing surgery the application of appropriate massage can promote healing at incision sites and may prevent or reduce scarring. Use of foot massage was shown to have a positive effect on patients' perceptions of pain, nausea and relaxation.

There are situations in which massage can be risky or the techniques need to be adjusted. For example; massage should not be given if signs of infection are present at the surgical site. Immediately after surgery when a person is at risk of developing blood clots, massage of the legs is not advised. Patients undergoing radiation should not have massage techniques applied in the area of the radiation field because the massage may further irritate the irradiated skin. During chemotherapy, often patients are at increased risk of infection, anemia or bruising. Special precautions need to be taken with massage at this time. The use of massage therapy as an adjunct to cancer treatment should be discussed with the patient's treating physician (oncologist, radiation oncologist or surgeon). This is so that any risks can be discussed and details about the patient's condition can be provided so that a licensed massage therapist (LMT) can provide a safe and effective massage to the patient with cancer.

When seeking out a massage therapist it is recommended that information regarding the therapist's education and credentials be reviewed. The following are criteria that are recommended in a massage therapist:

  • Graduated from an accredited program, which meets the standards set by the Commission on Massage Therapy and Accreditation.
  • Holds a current state license in massage therapy
  • Is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork
  • Is a member of a professional association, such as the American Massage Therapy Association
  • Has received special training in massage of patients undergoing cancer treatment.

Massage therapy can be very beneficial to a person undergoing cancer treatment. However, be sure to discuss with your health care provider so this therapy can be used safely.

Therapeutic Touch is a complementary medicine form that presupposes that people have individual "energy fields" that interact with one another and with the environment as part of a universal energy force. These fields are thought of in scientific, rather than in mystical terms. In the late 1960's Dr. Dolores Krieger, Professor of Nursing at New York University learned the technique of "laying on of hands" from a healer, Dora Kunz. She began to teach what she called Therapeutic Touch to her students.

In a Therapeutic Touch (TT) session, the practitioner attempts to attune their energy fields with the patient so that disturbances in the "energy flow" are balanced and the body's healing powers can work freely. Hands are placed inches above the body and gently moved over it to assess any changes or blockages in the energy field. Using sweeping movements, the practitioner will try to treat the area of imbalance, perhaps by visualizing healing energy directed from her body to the patient. A session may last 10-15 minutes. TT is used to treat stress-related conditions, such as fatigue and headaches. It is also used for pain relief, especially from muscle strain and following surgery. It also has been used to promote wound healing, and for lymphatic and circulation disorders.

Reiki is a form of Japanese spiritual healing. This complementary medicine has its foundation in ancient Tibetan Buddhism, apparently forgotten until its rediscovery in the late 19th century. The aim of reiki is to promote health, maintain well-being, and help people attain a higher consciousness. Practitioners draw on "reiki energy" channeling it to areas of need in themselves and their patients. They borrow terminology from physics, claiming that reiki acts at an atomic level, causing the body's molecules to vibrate with higher intensity and thus dissolving energy blockages that lead to disharmony and disease.

A treatment session lasts about an hour; the practitioner directs reike energy through his hands to the patient. The patient lies clothed on a treatment table and the practitioner holds his hands on or over the body in 12 basic positions for about five minutes each. This is said to balance the body's energy centers or "chakras." Some patients may feel relaxed after treatment; others feel invigorated.

Reflexology: According to practitioners, the feet are a mirror of the body, and applying pressure to areas on the foot that correspond to the affected organs may help to relieve symptoms such as pain, constipation, and nausea. Reflexology is increasingly available in many hospices, and is often given by nurses.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese system of health care. This type of complementary medicine aims to prevent and cure specific diseases and conditions by sticking very fine, solid needles into points of the body. Acupuncture is believed to encourage the release of endorphins, natural painkillers that can also increase feelings of well-being. Acupressure, in which the same acupoints are stimulated by hand, may be effective in the same way, but to a lesser degree.

Cognitive Complementary Medicine:

Cognitive Therapy promotes mind-body healing by using the power of positive thinking to facilitate recovery. Types of cognitive therapy include:

Guided Imagery (visualization) is a process where the patient is assisted in imagining positive images and desired outcomes to specific situations. The practitioner works with the patient initially to discover what is they are trying to accomplish with the therapy. Then a mental image is created. For example, patients are asked to focus on feeling stronger or better, or to picture the destruction of tumor cells while in a state of relaxation. In one technique, patients visualize various aspects of treatment, from the least frightening to the most painful, remaining calm and relaxed at each step. This method has helped patients to control nausea before chemotherapy.

Hypnotherapy would be similar to guided imagery, however a physician or licensed hypnotherapist would be needed to induce deep relaxation.


Meditation is a method of relaxing and quieting the mind to relieve muscle tension and facilitate inner peace. There are numerous forms of meditation, taught individually or in group settings.

Relaxation and Deep Breathing: Patients are taught these types of complementary medicine techniques to help to release muscle tension, relieve breathlessness, lessen anxiety and encourage a greater sense of control, particularly when receiving unpleasant or stressful treatments.

Biofeedback: A training technique in which people are taught to improve their health and performance by using signals from their own bodies, is particularly found to be useful for managing pain and side effects.

Expressive Complementary Medicine:

Expressive Therapies are treatments in which patients are encouraged to express their thoughts. Expressive therapies are thought to alleviate anxiety by allowing the patient to release fear and frustration in a positive, creative fashion. These therapies include:

Psychotherapy and Counseling

Support Groups

Journal Writing: Writing in a journal is an effective way to handle some of the emotions that living with cancer triggers. Often people facing a serious illness find it difficult to express their feelings to others. Journal writing can allow a person to express difficult feelings in a safe and private way. Regular journal writing also helps people to clarify their thoughts and make good choices.

Art Therapy: Drawing, painting and sculpting, especially when carried out in a group environment, encourage pleasure in creativity and enable people to find a way of expressing their feelings that cannot be easily put into words.

Physical Complementary Medicine:

Physical Exercise: When possible for the patient, physical exercise has been shown to release endorphins (mood elevating hormones) and promote better general health, relief of tension and positive attitudes. Even something as simple as walking and certain forms of dance have been helpful to patients.

Yoga is a form of gentle exercise consisting of body postures and breathing techniques. It has been practiced for thousands of years in India, and has now become popular around the world. In the West it is valued more for its physical than spiritual benefits, such as its ability to increase suppleness and vitality, and to relieve stress and fatigue.

T'ai Chi is a noncombative martial art that uses breathing techniques and sequences of slow, graceful movements to improve the flow of qi, or "life energy," calm the mind, and to promote self-healing. It is often described as "meditation in motion." It is practiced more as a form of preventive health care than as a response to an ailment.

Qi Gong is an ancient system of movement, breathing techniques, and meditation, which is designed to develop and improve the circulation of "qi" or "life energy" around the body.

Medical Systems Complementary Medicine:

Medical Systems is an overall term used to describe the types of different, alternative, or non-traditional medicines that may be called upon in addition to western medicine. Some of these include naturopathy, Anthroposophical medicine, Western herbalism, Chinese herbalism, and ayurveda.

General Precautions Regarding Complementary Medicine:

  • Chemocare recommends that you consult a doctor before starting any nonconventional form of treatment.
  • Do not stop taking any prescribed medication without first consulting your doctor.
  • Tell your complementary practitioner about any prescribed medication you are taking, and any other complementary treatments you are receiving.
  • Tell your doctor about any complementary treatments or remedies you are taking.
  • Do not start on a vigorous exercise program without first consulting a doctor.
  • Advise your practitioner if you have any sexually transmitted disease.
  • See your doctor if symptoms persist or worsen.
Note: We strongly encourage you to talk with your health care professional about your specific medical condition and treatments. The information contained in this website is meant to be helpful and educational, but is not a substitute for medical advice is designed to provide the latest information about chemotherapy to patients and their families, caregivers and friends. For information about the 4th Angel Mentoring Program visit