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Complementary therapies

I think being able to manage the stress of going through tough moments within a medical situation using Mindfulness or Yoga is key to feeling better.”

Carlos A Ortiz de M Soto (Aplastic anaemia survivor)

Complementary therapies (CTs) are widely used alongside standard treatments for blood cancer.

  • Complementary therapies are forms of practice and products used alongside conventional medicine.
  • Complementary medicines are non-prescription medicines.
  • Integrative medicine (IM) combines conventional care and complementary therapies.
  • Alternative therapies are used in place of conventional medicine.

We are now in an era of so-called integrative-oncology, using evidence-based CTs to relieve cancer symptoms and treatment side effects. Most major cancer centres and hospitals around the world now have integrative oncology or cancer wellness centres.”

Professor David Joske

Read more from Professor David Joske.

It is important to use complementary therapies safely. Complementary therapies may be perceived as safe. But some cause harm by interacting with conventional and prescribed medicine. Others provide no benefit. Some potential interactions with treatment can:

  • Make treatment side effects worse
  • Reduce the anti-cancer effect of the treatment

Determine the benefits and risks, and ensure the information is reputable. Discuss any complementary therapies you plan to use with your treatment team. Developing a comprehensive plan with your treatment team can ensure the complementary therapies are effective and safe for you.

The Understanding complementary therapies booklet from the Cancer Council has a question checklist on page 70-72 of things to consider and questions to ask.

Some types of complementary therapies


Acupuncture is a procedure involving stimulation of anatomical locations on the skin by a variety of techniques. Generally, this is through using fine needles. It is important to talk to your treatment team before undergoing acupuncture. Studies suggest that acupuncture can:

  • Reduce cancer pain
  • Improve chemotherapy induced nausea


Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils to improve emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. It is generally applied topically or inhaled; some studies suggest it is effective in:

  • Reducing anxiety and depression
  • Improving sleep
  • Improving memory
  • Increasing appetite

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is used to modify cognition with rational thinking. It helps people gain a sense of control and increase their confidence. Studies on cancer patients showed that CBT:

  • Significantly reduced depression and anxiety
  • Improved quality of life
  • Reduced pain
  • Reduced cancer related fatigue


There is a large amount of research on cancer and exercise. Data shows that people who exercise before, during and following cancer treatment experience improvements in:

  • Cancer related fatigue
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bone health
  • Brain function
  • Physical fitness
  • Quality of life

If there’s any one thing that I think people can do to get themselves through the treatment of a cancer and out to the other side in the best possible shape, it’s exercise.”

Professor David Joske

Light therapy (for sleep)

There is some data suggesting that light therapy may benefit cancer patients. It is thought light therapy may:

  • Help regulate circadian rhythm to improve sleep quality
  • Suppress the release of the sleep hormone melatonin during the day, to help increase activity


Light and relaxing massage is generally safe for people at all stages of cancer. Studies have shown that massage can:

  • Decrease pain
  • Improve fatigue
  • Reduce nausea
  • Improve quality of life
  • Reduce anxiety

Medicinal cannabis

Medicinal cannabis approved for medical use has the active ingredients delta‐9‐tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). They are generally oral preparations, like oil, spray or capsules. Most products are unregistered and require approval to be prescribed through a special access scheme.

Data suggests medicinal cannabis may have some effect in:

  • Treatment of chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting
  • Appetite stimulation
  • Pain relief in combination with other pain medications


Discover the benefits of exercise for cancer patients. Whether impacted by leukaemia (leukemia), myeloma, lymphoma or other blood cancers.Meditation is a mind-body relaxation technique. It can help train the mind to stay focused and peaceful. There some types of meditation involve movement whilst others involve being still and quiet.

Meditation is known to help cancer patients by:

  • Improving sleep
  • Reducing pain
  • Improving fatigue
  • Reducing nausea
  • Lowering blood pressure


Mindfulness is being present in the moment without judgement. It can take practice to notice thoughts, feelings or experiences, then accept them and focus on the present moment.

The use of mindfulness in cancer has shown:

  • Reduction in stress, anxiety and depression
  • Increased belief in self
  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Improvement in pain
  • Increased food intake for those underweight

Music therapy

Music therapy can involve listening to or creating music. It can be singing in a choir, playing an instrument.

Music is a different language, and music therapy is like having a conversation, but we use music instead of words.”

Dr Stephanie Thompson

Read more about Music Therapy.

Music therapy in cancer care can have beneficial effects on:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hope
  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Quality of life
  • Resilience

Nature prescription

Discover the benefits of exercise for cancer patients.Evidence shows that being in nature can make us healthier.

It can improve health in several ways:

  • Walking in green spaces can improve physical well being
  • Breath work or meditation in nature can improve psychological well being

walks and time in nature, mindfulness practises, and connecting with others were good ways to replenish my cup”

Sophie Gray (AML survivor)

Read more of Sophie’s story.

Nutrition supplements and herbal medicines

Nutrition supplements include herbs, vitamins, minerals and/or probiotics. Very few herbal products have been tested for quality and side effects. Some herbal products can increase the risk of bleeding. There have been rare cases of infection from probiotics.

Check with your treatment team before starting any of these as many can interact with other medications. It may be recommended for you to delay their use until post treatment.

He (Haematologist) asked that I not take any supplements through transplant as there is so much going on and so much risk involved – that to have a reaction to a supplement would not be helpful at that time.”

Sophie Gray (AML survivor)

Vitamin C given intravenously (IV) in high doses is widely used by cancer patients. There is no evidence that it treats cancer or helps other cancer treatments. There are ongoing studies on its effectiveness to reduce cancer treatment side effects. There is some evidence that it may help improve:

Facts and myths about high-dose intravenous vitamin C (IVC) effectiveness in advanced-stage cancer patients.

Nutrients | Free Full-Text | High-Dose Vitamin C in Advanced-Stage Cancer Patients (

My advice to my patients is to have a raw fruit and vegetable blended drink, an apple and/or banana, rather than taking high dose supplements.”

Professor David Joske

There is limited data on benefits but tailored nutritional supplements may be prescribed by your treatment team.

There is currently no evidence that it treats cancer, it has side effects and has the potential to interfere with some cancer treatments.


Qigong is mind-body exercise, it uses a combination of meditation, breathing, and movement. Practicing qigong is known to:

  • Improve fatigue
  • Improve mood
  • Help regulate emotion and stress
  • Improve sleep

Writing therapy

Writing in a journal about experiences when you have blood cancer may:

  • Give permission to express emotions
  • Provide a means to reflect on fear and uncertainty

I found that writing in a journal helped me get all of those bad feelings out and always made me feel a lot better.”

Megan Reid (Hodgkin Lymphoma survivor)

Read more about Megan’s story.


Yoga combines poses, breathing techniques, meditation and mindfulness. It can be beneficial in improving adverse symptoms from cancer and its treatment.

There is data to suggest it improves:

  • Psychological well being
  • Physical health
  • Emotional regulation
  • Quality of life

Advice Professor David Joske provides to his patients during treatment

  1. You need to understand and be committed to your medical plan.
  2. You need to make your own plan to manage the situation.
  3. Being calm is more important than being positive.
  4. Lifestyle management: diet, stress, antioxidants (no evidence of benefit for supplements), exercise, complementary therapies.
  5. Leave supplements until after treatment.
  6. Exercise is the single best thing you can do to help yourself.
  7. Resolve stress – get your life how you want it to be.
  8. Trust your instincts.

Watch Complementary Therapies for more information from Professor David Joske.

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