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5 Types of Complementary Therapies to Try

Can Reiki, reflexology, or the keto diet help during cancer treatment? Here’s what the research says.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing long-term intensive treatment can often lead to significant distress, which can affect various aspects of your health.

Complementary medicine is a type of holistic healthcare that integrates non-mainstream practices with conventional medical treatments to enhance overall well-being.

This category includes mind-body practices such as hypnosis and yoga, as well as specific diets such as the Mediterranean diet. These approaches aim to strengthen your immune system, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve your quality of life.

Let’s explore some common complementary therapies and how they can support cancer treatment while benefiting your overall well-being.

Mind-body practices

These mind-body therapies incorporate mental focus, breathing exercises, and physical movements to promote relaxation and mental well-being:

  • Meditation: the use of focused breathing or repetitive phrases to reduce stress and quiet your mind
  • Yoga: a combinination of stretches, poses, meditation, and controlled breathing that can help balance your mind and body
  • Qigong: an ancient Chinese practice that combines movement, meditation, and controlled breathing to enhance energy flow and improve health
  • Tai chi: a practice of slow, deliberate movements and controlled breathing to enhance physical and mental health
  • Imagery: visualization of positive images to aid the healing process
  • Creative outlets: participation in art, music, or dance activities for therapeutic benefits
  • Biofeedback: the use of specialized devices to gain control over involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate

According to a 2014 research review, mind-body practices such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qigong can reduce stress and improve quality of life.

One 2023 clinical trial found that virtual mind-body fitness classes could also benefit people with cancer by reducing hospitalizations and enhancing quality of life. People who took these classes, which included yoga, tai chi, dance therapy, and meditation, had fewer and shorter hospital stays than people who didn’t participate.

Biologically based practices

Biologically based practices for cancer involve using natural substances, such as dietary supplements and food, to support health and potentially enhance cancer treatment.

Here are some examples and their potential benefits:

Supplements

  • Vitamin D: supports immune function and may reduce cancer risk
  • Vitamin C: may improve cancer treatment effectiveness and reduce side effects when taken in high doses
  • Selenium: an antioxidant that may protect cells and reduce cancer risk
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: found in fish oil; may reduce inflammation and improve overall health
  • Probiotics: can support gut health and enhance immune function
  • Turmeric (curcumin): has anti-inflammatory properties that may reduce cancer growth and improve treatment effectiveness
  • Green tea extract: contains antioxidants such as EGCG, which may have anticancer properties
  • Cannabis: can help manage symptoms such as pain, nausea, and loss of appetite; also has potential anticancer effects
  • Ginger: helps alleviate nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy
  • Garlic: boosts immunity and may have anticancer effects

One 2023 study found that regular use of supplements, including multivitamins, was linked to a 30% lower risk of non-cardia gastric cancer among predominantly Black participants. This reduction was especially significant for those with lower diet quality.

While these findings are promising, they indicate an association rather than direct causation, suggesting the need for further clinical trials.

The authors of a 2024 study warn that excessive, long-term use of supplements could increase the risk of developing cancer and of dying from it.

Overall, regular, moderate supplement use may have benefits, but excessive use could be harmful. Further research is needed to clarify these effects.

Special diets

  • Ketogenic (keto) diet: This high fat, low carbohydrate diet is being studied for its potential to slow cancer growth by limiting glucose, which cancer cells use for energy. Studies suggest that adding a keto diet to standard chemotherapy and radiation might improve tumor response, but more research is needed.
  • Mediterranean diet: This diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats such as olive oil. It’s associated with reduced risk of death from cancer and improved health outcomes in people with cancer.

Energy healing techniques

These methods focus on the flow of energy within your body, aiming to balance and restore it.

Reiki

Reiki practitioners place their hands lightly on or above your body to guide energy for healing.

In a 2023 review of seven studies, five studies showed that Reiki may help reduce pain in people with cancer. But two studies found it to be ineffective, and more high quality randomized controlled trials are needed.

Therapeutic touch

Practitioners of this technique move their hands over your body’s energy fields without direct contact to promote balance and healing.

A 2016 review found positive effects of therapeutic touch on pain, nausea, anxiety, fatigue, and overall quality of life in several clinical trials.

Manipulative and body-based methods

These therapies involve physically manipulating your body to improve your health.

Massage therapy

Massage therapists use techniques such as kneading, rubbing, and tapping to relax muscles and improve circulation.

A 2023 research analysis suggests that massage therapy can significantly relieve cancer pain, particularly for people who are undergoing surgery and those with blood cancers. Foot reflexology and hand acupressure are especially effective, with hand acupressure being more beneficial.

Chiropractic therapy

Chiropractors use spinal adjustments and other techniques to address musculoskeletal issues.

A small 2020 study found that people with cancer tend to seek chiropractic care primarily for musculoskeletal pain and related issues. The most commonly perceived benefits included improved quality of life, pain relief, and enhanced function.

Reflexology

This technique involves applying pressure to specific points on your feet or hands that are believed to correspond to different body parts for therapeutic effect.

A 2019 study of 57 people with breast cancer found that reflexology significantly reduced fatigue severity.

Psychological and behavioral therapies

These therapies focus on mental health and behavior change, which can support overall well-being and coping strategies.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

This form of psychotherapy can help people manage anxiety, depression, and stress related to cancer.

A 2022 analysis of 15 studies involving 1,979 cancer survivors found that CBT significantly reduced depression and anxiety both during treatment and for up to 6 months afterward, as compared to standard treatment. However, further high quality trials are needed to confirm these findings.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

This type of therapy aims to help people accept difficult thoughts and feelings while committing to actions that align with their values.

A 2023 review of 77 studies found that ACT processes such as acceptance, present moment awareness, and self-compassion were associated with lower levels of distress in people with cancer.

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