Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) for Cancer

What is CAM?

There are many types of treatment for cancer. Standard medicine refers to treatments that have been tested in science studies and found to work. These have been approved by the FDA. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are different from standard medicine. They include these 2 types of therapy:

  • Complementary medicine. This is any form of therapy used with standard medicine. These types of therapy may be used to ease symptoms. They may improve quality of life. They may ease side effects caused by standard treatment. For example, using guided imagery may help pain relief during cancer treatment.

  • Alternative medicine. This is another approach to healing. It’s also called alternative therapy. This is treatment used instead of standard medicine. These are often not tested in science studies or proven to work. Talk with your healthcare provider before using alternative medicine. It can delay the use of proven methods. Or it may cause you harm.

What are the different types of CAM?

There are many types of complementary and alternative medicine. Some of them overlap in how they work. Examples of CAM include:

Traditional alternative medicine

Traditional alternative medicine has been practiced for centuries worldwide. They include the more accepted forms of therapy. Some examples are:

  • Chinese medicine. This treats health issues using mind and body practices. These can include acupuncture, tai chi, and herbs.

  • Acupuncture. Thin needles are put into the skin on specific points of the body. This is done to affect energy in the body in different ways.

  • Ayurveda. This is a medical practice from India. It uses herbs, exercise, and special diets.

  • Homeopathy. This is a medical practice from Germany. It uses remedies made from plants, minerals, and animals.

  • Naturopathy. This is a practice that combines alternative and standard medicine.


Touch has been used in medicine since the early days of medical care. Healing by touch is based on the idea that illness or injury in 1 part of the body can affect all parts of the body. These methods use hands-on therapy:

  • Chiropractic

  • Massage

  • Body movement

  • Tai chi

  • Yoga

Diet and herbs

A healthy diet can include lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains. But our diets often have lots of unhealthy fats, oils, processed foods, and simple carbohydrates. Both nutritional excess and deficiency are problems. Both can lead to long-term (chronic) diseases. Many dietary and herbal treatments try to balance the body's nutritional well-being. These treatments include:

  • Dietary supplements, minerals, and vitamins

  • Herbal medicine

External energy

This therapy uses external forces (energies) from objects or other sources to affect a person's health. One type of external energy therapy is electromagnetic therapy.


Studies have found that people heal better if they have good emotional and mental health. Therapies using the mind include:

  • Biofeedback

  • Hypnosis

  • Meditation


Some people believe the senses can affect overall health. This means touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. Therapies using senses include:

  • Art, dance, and music

  • Guided imagery

  • Aromatherapy

Before considering CAM

Some types of CAM aren't controlled by any U.S. medical guidelines. Always talk with your healthcare provider before starting any type of CAM therapy. Some may interfere with standard treatment.

Be informed before trying CAM. Get more information by:

  • Talking with your healthcare provider

  • Researching trusted sources online or in books, articles, and science journals

  • Speaking with people who have tried the therapy

  • Looking for science studies about the therapy

Warning signs to watch for

The American Cancer Society says if a treatment has these warning signs, it's best to stay away from it:

  • It's based on unproven theories

  • It promises a cure

  • It offers benefits but claims to have no side effects

  • It's a secret and can only be given by certain providers

  • It needs travel to another country

  • The treatment providers tell you not to use standard medicine

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.