The Women's Health Resource. On the web since 1997.

Alternative/Complementary Medicine

Main Menu


An "alternative" therapy is a treatment that is used in place of traditional medicine. A "complementary" therapy is a treatment that is used as a supplement to traditional medicine. Alternative and complementary medicines have become increasingly popular in recent years. According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), Americans spent more than $27 billion on alternative or complementary therapies in 1997. This is more than all out-of-pocket hospital costs combined for 1997 (out-of pocket costs are costs the patient may pay in addition to the costs covered by his or her health insurance or health plan).

While anecdotal evidence reveals that many alternative or complementary medicines may be beneficial to patients, extensive research is still needed to determine whether non-traditional medicines are truly effective. Therefore, most physicians recommend that patients who use non-traditional medicines use them only as supplements to traditional treatment options that have been scientifically proven to be effective. Currently, there is no scientific evidence that non-traditional therapies can cure breast cancer.

That is not to say that complementary medicines are not viable options for some patients. When used in conjunction with traditional medicines, some complementary therapies may be very beneficial to the physical or psychological well-being of a patient. There have been studies that show that non-traditional medicines can help alleviate the symptoms of cancer or ease the side effects of traditional therapies. For example, Chinese herbs have been shown to lessen the side effects of chemotherapy and acupuncture has been shown to reduce nausea (a possible side effect of chemotherapy and other drug therapies).

Alternative Medicine Complementary Medicine
A non-traditional therapy that is used in place of traditional medicine. A non-traditional therapy that is used as a supplement to traditional medicine.

However, it is important for patients to realize that not all alternative or complementary medicines are safe. Patients who are considering non-traditional medicines should thoroughly investigate the therapy and consult with their physicians or alternative medicine practitioners to make sure the therapy is safe and will not interact with other medicines they may be taking.

The National Cancer Institute recommends that patients ask the following questions when considering an alternative or complementary therapy:

  • What benefits can be expected from this therapy?
  • What are the risks associated with this therapy?
  • Do the known benefits outweigh the risks?
  • What side effects can be expected?
  • Will the therapy interfere with conventional treatment?
  • Will the therapy be covered by health insurance?

Types of Alternative/Complementary Therapies

Mind-Body/Spiritual: These therapies often focus on the emotional and psychological aspects of a patient’s health. Studies have shown that stress levels and emotional outlooks can impact a cancer patient’s survival. In a recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers found that advanced breast cancer patients with high stress levels were less likely to live as long as patients who coped well with stress. Examples of mind-body or spiritual therapies include hypnosis, breathing techniques, dance, music, art therapy, poetry, prayer, and meditation. Many of these therapies originated in ancient Eastern cultures.

Oriental Medicine: This category of medicine focuses on maintaining a balancing the body’s energies: the "yin" and the "yang." It attempts to accomplish this balance by restoring the body’s natural energy flow, called the qi (pronounced "chee"). Examples of oriental medicine include: Acupuncture: stimulating pressure points with needles. Acupressure: massage technique of pressure points. Moxibustion: heat therapy Qi Gong: applying finger pressure to acupuncture points. Qi Gong involves using breathing techniques and medication to strengthen the qi (the body’s natural immunity). Reiki ("Universal Life Energy"): involves channeling spiritual energy through the practitioner to help heal the body.

Ayurveda: This is India's traditional system of medicine. Ayurvedic means "science of life" and its system equally emphasizes the body, mind, and spirit to help restore harmony to the patient. Examples of Ayuvedic medicine include special diets, exercise, meditation, herbs, massage, exposure to sunlight, and controlled breathing.

Homeopathy: This Western therapy is based on the idea that a patient could be treated by using small doses of a medicine that produces the same symptoms as the patient’s illness. Supporters of homeopathy believe that very diluted extracts from herbs, minerals, or animal substances can be potent remedies for illnesses and diseases.

Naturopathy: This therapy takes a natural approach to healing. Supporters of naturopathy see disease as an alteration of processes that can be healed naturally through diet, herbal remedies, exercise, homeopathy, massage, spinal and soft tissue manipulation, hydrotherapy (use of water to promote healing), counseling, light therapy, and other techniques. Some naturopaths practice Oriental medicine, including acupuncture.

Aromatherapy: This therapy was originally used in ancient Egypt and India and has become increasingly common in the United States since the early 1980s. Aromatherapy uses special scented oils to treat physical and emotional problems. The oils may be inhaled or applied topically to the skin, sometimes in the form of massage. Types of oils used during aromatherapy include eucalyptus, lavender, rosemary, and thyme. Aromatherapy is usually given by certified aromatherapists.

Biological therapies (vitamins, minerals, and herbs): This category of therapies involves the use of vitamins, minerals, or herbal supplements and is often used in conjunction with traditional therapies in cancer patients. An herb is a plant or an extract from the non-woody portion of a plant (the stems, leaves, flowers, etc.). Plant chemicals (called phytochemicals) are substances derived from plants that may have an effect on the body. In fact, many modern, traditional drugs were discovered from plants. For example, the breast cancer drug Taxol (generic name, paclitaxel) was first isolated from a Pacific yew tree in 1967. Vitamins and minerals can help strengthen the body’s immune system. The main antioxidant vitamins are vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E. In addition, deficiencies of vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B5 (pantotheniec acid) and vitamin B12 can decrease white blood cell function. Some preliminary studies have shown that vitamins may help reduce risk of breast cancer or treat the disease. For example, clinical studies are investigating the effect of a drug called fenretinide, a derivative of vitamin A, on young women at high risk of breast cancer recurrence. However, further research is needed to definitely determine whether certain vitamins reduce breast cancer risk. Because high doses of some vitamins may be harmful for some breast cancer patients, patients should ask their physicians about taking vitamins and minerals while undergoing treatment. Herbs and herbal supplements have also become more commonly used among breast cancer patients in recent years. Herbal remedies may consist of single or multiple herbal mixtures. Currently, there is little scientific research on the effectiveness of herbs on breast cancer. Still, some women find that taking herbal supplements is helpful during breast cancer treatment. However, women considering herbal diets should talk to their physicians since some herbs may interfere with other therapies or may be harmful if proper dosages are not followed. Herbs and medicinal plants used for breast cancer include: Astragalus root Burdock root Garlic Green Tea Licorice root Note, shark cartilage capsules became a popular alternative/complementary breast cancer therapy after the book, Sharks Don’t Get Cancer by William Lance, was first published in 1993. However, researchers have since found that sharks do develop cancer, and now, a new study shows that shark cartilage does not have any effect on cancer. This section outlined a few of the common schools of alternative and complementary medicine. There are many more therapies available. Although research on non-traditional medicine is limited at this time, many physicians are beginning to embrace some complementary medicines as useful supplements to traditional cancer treatment in selected cases. Women interested in learning more about alternative and complementary therapies should follow the links below and also speak with their physicians or alternative medicine practitioners.

Additional Resources and References

  • To view a comprehensive listing of online resources for alternative and complementary therapies, please visit
  • The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports and conducts basic and applied research on alternative and complementary therapies. The NCCAM website provides background information on alternative and complementary medicines, the latest research, and information on the organization at
  • provides information on a variety of alternative and complementary medicines and practices. The website also includes information on new research and articles written by medical doctors at A special section on cancer risk reduction is available at
  • The National Cancer Institute provides information on alternative and complementary medicines at
  • The NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) supports and conducts research on dietary supplements. To learn more about the ODS, please visit
  • "An FDA Guide to Dietary Supplements" (1999) provides information on the dietary supplement industry, federally required vitamin labeling, safety monitoring, claims of effects, quality of products, reporting harmful effects, and more. The document is available at
  • Healthfinder, a free website that directs users to reliable consumer health and human services information developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides resources on alternative and complementary medicines at
  • Prescription for Nutritional Healing: A Practical A-Z Reference to Drug-Free Remedies Using Vitamins, Minerals, Herbs, and Food Supplements by James Balch, MD and Phyllis Balch, CNC is a comprehensive resource for information on vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other dietary supplements. Click here to learn more about this book.
  • American Cancer Society's Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Methods published by the American Cancer Society provides information on herbs, vitamins, minerals, diets, manual healing, and alternative treatment methods. Click here to learn more about this book.
  • The medical study, "Trends in Alternative Medicine Use in the United States, 1990-1997," is published in the November 11, 1998 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. An abstract of the study is available at

Updated: September 7, 2007