Complementary therapies are therapies or products that are not considered to be part of the standard medical care offered in Canada.  Many complementary therapies have their roots in Eastern traditions and have a long history of use in countries like China and India.

Complementary therapies are added to standard medical treatments such as chemotherapy and hormone therapy.  Alternative therapies are therapies that are intended to replace standard medical treatments. Alternative therapies are not generally endorsed by the Western medical community, as there is no conclusive evidence that they are as effective as the standard treatments, and their risks are largely unknown.

Integrative medicine is a relatively new approach that the aims to treat the whole person, not just the disease.  It combines conventional treatments and complementary therapies. The Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre in Ontario and Inspire Health in British Columbia are integrative cancer care centres that you may be interested in learning more about. They employ an individualized whole-person approach to cancer care and offer complementary support alongside standard treatments.

Some people use complementary therapies to cope with the side effects of their treatment.  Others use them when a treatment has been completed to help ease them back into everyday living.  Complementary cancer treatments, however, are not substitutes for proven standard therapies to treat metastatic breast cancer.

Most complementary therapies are considered to be safe. However, in some cases there are therapies that can make conventional medical therapies less effective. It is important to consult with your health care team about any complementary therapies you are considering taking. For example certain herbs, vitamins, or supplements may reduce the effectiveness of certain drugs you may be taking, or even cause harmful side effects.

You are unique, and so are the activities that centre you, empower you or give you physical and spiritual release.

Here are some common complementary practices that you can consider:

Exercise helps keeps the body strong and muscles relaxed.  It can help with posture, balance, bone density, stamina and body composition.  Certain types – like yoga – have been shown to reduce fatigue and improve sleep.

Nutrition can help you maintain a strong and well-nourished body and prepare your body for medicines and for healing over time.  Often modifying your diet and adding supplements like vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other nutraceuticals can help you manage treatment complications and side effects.   Tell your health care team about any herbs, vitamins and supplements that you are considering.  They may reduce the effectiveness of certain drugs you may be taking or even cause harmful side effects.

Bodywork therapies focus on physical sensation as a source to relieve pain and tension:

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese method of targeting energy channels, or meridians, which run through your body. The acupuncturist positions fine needles into these channels to help control nausea and pain.

The body’s soft tissue structures are manipulated in massage therapy.  A registered massage therapist can stimulate circulation to help alleviate pain, discomfort, muscle spasms, and stress.

Mind-body practices use the mind to calm stress and anxiety:

Biofeedback is a technique in which people are trained to gain some voluntary control over certain physical conditions, such as blood pressure and muscle tension, to promote relaxation.

Hypnosis can allow you to enter a state of deep relaxation by concentrating on specific feelings, thoughts, or sensations.

Practicing meditation can lead to deep relaxation and a calm mental state. During meditation, your body releases natural painkillers that can help to reduce stress, anxiety and tension.

The ancient Chinese practice of Tai Chi can be described as a combination of a moving form of yoga and meditation. It involves a series of movements, each flowing into the next, with the entire body in constant motion. All movements are performed slowly and gracefully. Tai chi may help reduce stress and anxiety and increase flexibility and balance.

Therapeutic touch uses the flow of energy through the palms of the hands to comfort and heal. Therapeutic touch is given with the hands a few inches away from the body, or with hands lightly touching the body, to assess the body’s energy field and to correct imbalances.

Reiki is an ancient Japanese healing technique, which involves a practitioner placing her/his hands lightly on your body or just above your body to channel universal life-force energy. It is intended to treat your body, emotions, mind and spirit as a whole. Reiki may help to alleviate pain, stress, and anxiety.

Visualization, using your mind to concentrate on specific visual images, is a technique that can promote a tranquil state of mind and may help alleviate pain.

Yoga involves a series of stretches or postures that are performed mindfully, while breathing in a relaxed way. It may to help energize and strengthen your body and calm your mind. There are wide ranges of yoga styles; Hatha yoga is the foundation for many yoga styles and is ideal for beginners.

The credentials required by complementary therapy practitioners vary from one discipline to another and from one province or territory to another.  Make sure that the practitioner is experienced and is qualified to practice in the part of Canada where you live.

Unfortunately most complementary therapies are not covered by provincial health plans. If you have private health insurance coverage, your plan may cover them to a certain degree.