What is complementary therapy?

Complementary therapy includes 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.

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.

Most complementary therapies are considered to be safe. However, 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.

What is the difference between complementary therapies and alternative therapies?

Complementary therapies are used in addition to standard, conventional 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 combines complementary therapies and conventional treatments, with the aim to treat the whole person, not just the disease. The Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre and Inspire Health are integrative cancer care centres that you may be interested in learning more about.

What are some common complementary therapies?

Acupuncture: 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.

Biofeedback: 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.

Herbal medicine: Many herbs can have therapeutic value. Herbs produce and contain a variety of chemical substances so it is important to ask your medical team if there are reasons not to use a specific herb. Some herbs can negatively affect other treatments and cause their own side effects.

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

Massage therapy: By manipulating the body’s soft tissue structures of the body, a massage therapist can stimulate circulation to help alleviate pain, discomfort, muscle spasms, and stress. Some massage therapists are also skilled in massaging scar tissue after a mastectomy, which can aid in the healing process.

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Meditation: 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.

Reiki: This is an ancient Japanese healing technique, which involves a Reiki 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.

Therapeutic touch: This approach to healing 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.

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

Tai Chi: 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.

What should I look for in a complementary therapy practitioner?

Credentials required by the practitioners of complementary therapies vary from one discipline and jurisdiction to the next. Some practitioners must meet certain qualifications imposed by a regulatory body or association as a prerequisite to practice a particular profession, such as massage therapy. Find out what credentials are required to practice a particular therapy where you live and make sure that the practitioner is qualified and experienced.

Are complementary therapies covered by provincial health plans?

Most complementary therapies are not covered by provincial health plans, and only to a limited degree by private health insurance policies.

Links to more information

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Complementary Therapies
Canadian Cancer Society

Complementary & Holistic Medicine

Integrative & Complementary Therapies
Susan G. Komen For The Cure

CAMEO: Complementary Medicine (CAM) Education and Outcomes Research Program
BC Cancer Agency

National Information Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NIFAB) at the University of Tromsø, Norway

About Herbs, Botanicals and Other Products
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Complementary and Alternative Medicine
National Cancer Institute

Complementary and Alternative Medicine
American Cancer Society

Society for Integrative Oncology

Healing and Cancer Foundation

Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors