Alternative cancer treatments can't cure your cancer, but they may provide some relief from signs and symptoms. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Many people with cancer are interested in trying anything that may help them, including complementary and alternative cancer treatments. If cancer makes you feel as if you have little control over your health, alternative cancer treatments may offer some feeling of control. But many alternative cancer treatments are unproved and many are even dangerous.

To help you sort out the good from the bad, here are 11 alternative cancer treatments that are generally safe. Plus, there is some evidence that these 11 alternative cancer treatments may provide some benefit.

Alternative cancer treatments won't play any role in curing your cancer, but they may help you cope with signs and symptoms caused by cancer and cancer treatments. Common signs and symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, pain, difficulty sleeping, and stress may be lessened by alternative treatments.

Use alternative cancer treatments as a supplement to treatments you receive from your doctor — not as a substitute for medical care. While alternative cancer treatments, such as acupuncture, may reduce nausea or pain, they generally aren't powerful enough to replace medications from your doctor. Work closely with your doctor to determine the right balance between traditional medicines and alternative cancer treatments.

If you're experiencingThen consider trying
Anxiety Hypnosis, massage, meditation, relaxation techniques
Fatigue Exercise, massage, relaxation techniques, yoga
Nausea and vomiting Acupuncture, aromatherapy, hypnosis, music therapy
Pain Acupuncture, aromatherapy, biofeedback, hypnosis, massage, music therapy
Sleep problems Exercise, relaxation techniques, yoga
Stress Aromatherapy, exercise, hypnosis, massage, meditation, tai chi, yoga

These 11 alternative cancer treatments have shown some promise in helping people with cancer. Talk to your doctor if you're interested in trying:

  • Acupuncture. During acupuncture treatment, a practitioner inserts tiny needles into your skin at precise points. Studies show acupuncture may be helpful in relieving nausea caused by chemotherapy. Acupuncture may also help relieve certain types of pain in people with cancer.

    Acupuncture is safe if it's performed by a licensed practitioner using sterile needles. Ask your doctor for names of trusted practitioners. Acupuncture isn't safe if you're taking blood thinners or if you have low blood counts, so check with your doctor first.

  • Aromatherapy. Aromatherapy uses fragrant oils to provide a calming sensation. Oils, infused with scents such as lavender, can be applied to your skin during a massage or the oils can be added to bath water. Fragrant oils also can be heated to release their scents into the air. Aromatherapy may be helpful in relieving nausea, pain and stress.

    Aromatherapy can be performed by a practitioner, or you can use aromatherapy on your own. Aromatherapy is safe, though oils applied to your skin can cause allergic reactions.

  • Biofeedback. You use your mind to control various body functions, such as heart rate and blood flow, during biofeedback therapy. A biofeedback therapist uses an electronic device to monitor a specific body function, such as muscle tension or your heart rate. The device uses a beeping sound or a flashing light as cues, for instance, to tell you that your heart rate is slowing down or your muscles are becoming more relaxed. Working with the biofeedback therapist, you learn to control these functions by paying attention to the cues.

    Biofeedback may be helpful in relieving pain in people with cancer. Biofeedback is safe when you work with a certified biofeedback therapist. With practice, you can learn to do biofeedback on your own.

  • Exercise. Exercise may help you manage signs and symptoms during and after cancer treatment. Gentle exercise, such as walking or swimming, may help relieve fatigue and stress and help you sleep better.

    If you haven't already been exercising regularly, check with your doctor before you begin an exercise program. Start slowly, adding more exercise as you go. Aim to work your way up to at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

  • Hypnosis. Hypnosis is a deep state of concentration. During a hypnotherapy session, a therapist may hypnotize you by talking in a gentle voice and helping you relax. The therapist will then help you focus on goals, such as controlling your pain and reducing your stress.

    Hypnosis may be helpful for people with cancer who are experiencing anxiety, pain and stress. It may also help prevent anticipatory nausea and vomiting that can occur if chemotherapy has made you sick in the past. When performed by a certified therapist, hypnosis is safe. But tell your therapist if you have a history of mental illness.

  • Massage therapy. During a massage, your practitioner kneads your skin, muscles and tendons in an effort to relieve muscle tension and stress and promote relaxation. Several massage methods exist. Massage can be light and gentle, or it can be deep with more pressure. Studies have found massage can be helpful in relieving pain in people with cancer. It may also help relieve anxiety, fatigue and stress.

    Massage can be safe if you work with a knowledgeable massage therapist. Many cancer centers have massage therapists on staff, or your doctor can refer you to a massage therapist who regularly works with people who have cancer.

    Don't have a massage if your blood counts are low. Ask the massage therapist to avoid massaging near surgical scars, radiation treatment areas or tumors. If you have cancer in your bones or other bone diseases, such as osteoporosis, ask the massage therapist to use light pressure, rather than deep massage.

  • Meditation. Meditation is a state of deep concentration when you focus your mind on one image, sound or idea, such as a positive thought. When meditating, you might also do deep-breathing or relaxation exercises. Meditation may help people with cancer by relieving anxiety and stress.

    Meditation is generally safe. You can meditate on your own for a few minutes once or twice a day or you can take a class with an instructor.

  • Music therapy. During music therapy sessions, you might listen to music, play instruments, sing songs or write lyrics. A trained music therapist may lead you through activities designed to meet your specific needs, or you may participate in music therapy in a group setting. Music therapy may help relieve pain and control nausea and vomiting.

    Music therapy is safe and doesn't require any musical talent to participate. Many medical centers have certified music therapists on staff.

  • Relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques are ways of focusing your attention on calming your mind and relaxing your muscles. Relaxation techniques might include activities such as visualization exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. Relaxation techniques may be helpful in relieving anxiety and fatigue. They may also help people with cancer sleep better.

    Relaxation techniques are safe. Typically a therapist leads you through these exercises and eventually you may be able to do them on your own.

  • Tai chi. Tai chi is a form of exercise that incorporates gentle movements and deep breathing. Tai chi can be led by an instructor, or you can learn tai chi on your own following books or videos. Practicing tai chi may help relieve stress.

    Tai chi is generally safe. The slow movements of tai chi don't require great physical strength, and the exercises can be easily adapted to your own abilities. Still, talk to your doctor before beginning tai chi. Don't do any tai chi moves that cause pain.

  • Yoga. Yoga combines stretching exercises with deep breathing. During a yoga session, you position your body in various poses that require bending, twisting and stretching. There are many types of yoga, each with its own variations. Yoga may provide some stress relief for people with cancer. Yoga has also been shown to improve sleep and reduce fatigue.

    Before beginning a yoga class, ask your doctor to recommend an instructor who regularly works with people with health concerns, such as cancer. Avoid yoga poses that cause pain. A good instructor can give you alternative poses that are safe for you.

    You may find some alternative treatments work well together. For instance, deep breathing during a massage may provide further stress relief.

Jan. 19, 2012