Complementary and alternative medicine in childhood cancer

Complementary and alternative medicine in childhood cancer

Therapies are called complementary when they are used together with conventional medicine. Complementary therapies are not cures but they can play an important role in helping children through treatment and in promoting feelings of wellbeing. Examples are massage and aromatherapy.

What is complementary and alternative medicine?

Complementary and alternative medicine can be defined as a group of widely varied medical and healthcare systems, practices and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional (mainstream) medicine.

Complementary therapy

Therapies are called complementary when they are used together with conventional medicine.

Complementary therapies are not cures but they can play an important role in helping children through treatment and in promoting feelings of wellbeing. Examples are massage and aromatherapy.

Meditation, prayer, guided imagery, relaxation and focusing techniques are examples of complementary therapies designed to enhance the mind's ability to affect symptom relief.

Therapies that use creative outlets such as art, music, creative writing, dance and humour have been shown to help children express emotion and feel better.

Reiki and therapeutic touch are examples of complementary therapies that involve massage and touch through the purported energy fields surrounding the body.

Alternative therapy

Therapies are called alternative when they are used instead of conventional surgical, chemotherapeutic or radiation treatment. Alternative medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice.

Examples of alternative medical systems that have developed in Western cultures are homeopathic, chiropractic and naturopathic medicine.

Examples of alternative medical systems that have developed in non-Western cultures are traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and ayruveda (an Indian system).

Safety and efficacy

Research is increasing into therapies such as osteopathy, naturopathy, herbal medicine and homeopathy which will lead to more knowledge about safety and efficacy (the ability to produce a desired effect).
While some scientific evidence exists regarding the effectiveness of some CAM therapies, for most there are key questions yet to be answered such as are they safe, how do they work and will they work for this disease?

Interactions do occur between herbal products, botanical products, or dietary supplements and chemical medicines. This can cause the medicines to be less effective or dangerous.

Knowledge and understanding of CAM is increasing all the time and questions should be discussed with the oncologist at the treatment centre.

You can also find reliable, evidence based information on this website:

  • www.medlineplus.gov
    The drugs and supplements section on this site has information on herbs, supplements and alternative therapies. It is linked to the National Centre for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) which is a component of the National Institutes of Health in America.

What can I do?

  • tell your doctor at the treatment centre if you are intending to use a complementary therapy for your child such as massage and aromatherapy, so that it can be included when your child's progress is being monitored
  • if you are considering using a complementary herbal, botanical or dietary supplement ask the doctor at your treatment centre to check for interactions with your child's chemotherapy medicines. Also, ask your doctor to help you to check that the product doesn't contain anticoagulant or other properties which could be a risk for a child receiving chemotherapy
  • if you choose to consult with an alternative therapy practitioner, discuss it with the doctor at your child's treatment centre. A member of your medical team will help you to access the most reliable information to help you ensure the best treatment for your child and the most positive outcome for your family

Where to go for information and support

On this website:
Childhood cancer: Where to go for more information and support

All the fact sheets in the Childhood cancer section of this website have been written by health professionals who work in the field of paediatric oncology. They have been reviewed by the members of the National Child Cancer Network (NZ). Medical information is authorised by the National Child Cancer Network Clinical Leader.

This page last reviewed 16 October 2013.
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