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What are Complementary Therapies?



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What are complementary and integrative therapies?

Complementary therapies are therapies that are not considered standard medical treatments (such as surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy), but are used along with standard treatments for specific health conditions or overall well-being [1-2]. You may also hear the terms integrative therapies and complementary health approaches.

No complementary therapy has been proven to cure cancer. These therapies should not be used to treat breast cancer itself.

However, complementary therapies may be used to:  

  • Reduce side effects of treatment or the cancer itself (such as pain, nausea and fatigue
  • Reduce stress
  • Improve quality of life  

How common is the use of complementary and integrative therapies?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 40 percent of adults in the U.S. have used a complementary therapy in the past year [3]. Among breast cancer survivors, estimates range from about 15 percent to more than 80 percent [4-7].

Complementary therapies versus alternative therapies

Complementary therapies are different from alternative therapies.

  • Complementary and integrative therapies are used in addition to standard medical treatments. 
  • Alternative therapies are used instead of standard medical treatments. Using alternative therapies is not recommended. Standard medical treatments have been proven to increase breast cancer survival. Alternative therapies are not proven treatments.

The importance of talking with your health care provider about complementary therapies

Any decisions about complementary therapy use should be made jointly with your health care provider. Few complementary therapies have been studied with the same scientific rigor as standard medicine. While some are safe, others should be avoided. For example, some therapies can [8-12]:

  • Interfere with the effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • Increase surgical risks
  • Worsen treatment side effects

Talking with your provider before using any complementary therapy may help avoid problems and ensure all the risks and benefits to your health are carefully considered.

Learn more about the safety of complementary therapies.

Learn more about talking with your provider about complementary therapies.

Categories of complementary therapies

Complementary therapies can be grouped into categories that may help you discuss these therapies with your health care provider. Categories of complementary therapies include [1]:

Updated 06/24/14 


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