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Four complimentary therapies that support traditional cancer treatment

Complimentary cancer therapies that help manage symptoms of traditional cancer treatments are becoming more prevalent. If you are having medical treatment for cancer, or know someone who is, these therapies may be able to help you through your cancer journey.

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can be overwhelming. You might find yourself in a position that's entirely new for you – making complex decisions about what to do next. You may be worrying about different medications and the possible side effects. The good news is that there are several complimentary therapies that can help manage medication side effects.

These complimentary cancer treatments can be used alongside traditional therapies like chemotherapy and radiotherapy to help with symptom control. It's important to point out that these therapies do not have an anti-cancer effect, meaning they are not a replacement for traditional treatments.

Instead, these therapies focus on meeting your mental, emotional and spiritual needs during this challenging time.


Music therapy can improve mood and help with pain control

Music therapy can lead to an improvement in mood and a decrease in pain levels for some people undergoing traditional cancer treatment.

Music therapy can involve anything from listening to music, playing instruments, to writing melodies. Music therapists are highly trained health professionals. They focus on understanding the relationship between the human experience and music. They use this knowledge to support people's psychological, emotional and physical needs.

Music leads to endorphin release from the central nervous system. Endorphins are groups of molecules that act on opiate receptors in the brain. Increased endorphin release can lead to a decrease in pain, and an enhanced feeling of well-being.

A review of several studies looked at the role of music therapy in cancer treatment. It found that 'music techniques are effective in managing pain and other physical symptoms, psychological distress, and mood.'

Massage therapy could lead to less nausea, fatigue and mood disturbance

Massage treatments can help improve medication side effects like nausea, fatigue and depression or anxiety in people with cancer. In one study massage therapy halved the severity of these symptoms. There are now massage therapists specially trained in treating people with cancer.

It is essential to use a trained professional, as deep pressure near the cancer site can be unsafe.

One type of massage therapy that is becoming more popular is aromatherapy massage - a Swedish form of massage using essential oils. A large UK study looked at the use of this in people with cancer. The researchers found that this therapy led to improvements in depression and anxiety for up to 2 weeks after treatment.


Tai Chi can improve self-esteem and physical strength in breast cancer survivors

Tai Chi can improve the quality of life, physical strength and even self-esteem of patients who have recovered from breast cancer.

The study of Tai Chi has three components – health, meditation and martial arts. It originated in ancient China but has become increasingly popular within the western world.

One study looked at 21 women who had survived a breast cancer diagnosis. Women who had 12 weeks of regular Tai Chi had an improvement in their quality of life, strength and self-esteem. Women who had the standard level of care (without any Tai Chi) did not experience these benefits.


Yoga has several benefits, including improved sleep quality

Yoga could potentially improve your sleep and enhance your quality of life. The practice of yoga combines breathing control, moving through different postures and meditation.

An American study looked at the role of Tibetan yoga in people with lymphoma. (Tibetan yoga has an increased focus on meditation compared with the more commonly practised Hatha yoga). Those undergoing yoga sessions had improved sleep quality, longer sleep duration and less use of sleep medications.

Women with breast cancer who underwent a 12-week yoga programme experienced an improvement in their quality of life - as well as enhanced emotional, social and spiritual well-being.

A review looking at multiple research papers concluded that 'the evidence supports recommending yoga [in people with cancer] for improving psychological outcomes, with potential for also improving physical symptoms.'


In a nutshell

Medication side effects can be daunting, so it's helpful to know there are treatments that can help with controlling your symptoms. The aim of the traditional treatments - such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy - is to fight the cancer. Whereas these complimentary therapies focus on meeting your mental, emotional and spiritual needs.  

If you do decide to partake in a complimentary therapy alongside your traditional treatment, make sure your health professional is aware. You can learn what they know about the treatment you're considering. Plus, it's an excellent chance for them to understand more about your experience.

Everyone's cancer journey will be unique for them, and there's no 'one size fits all' when it comes to what options might work best for you.

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