Complementary & Alternative Medicine

“Alternative medicine” refers to treatments that are alternatives to Western medicine, also known as conventional, standard or mainstream medicine. “Complementary” and “integrative” medicine are used in addition to standard medicine.

The actual treatment may be the same. The difference is whether patients use them instead of, or in addition to, conventional medicine. Common ones include acupuncture, massage, reiki, healing touch, chiropractic, guided imagery, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, yoga, biofeedback, herbal medicine, dietary supplements, and art and music therapy.

Patients should inform their health-care providers about all treatments they use. Some vitamins and herbal supplements, for example, may interfere with prescription drugs, chemo or radiation.

Many treatments once considered alternative are now commonly found in large hospitals and cancer centers. Even support groups may fall into the category of integrative medicine.

Some chemotherapy drugs came from plants or animals originally, such as paclitaxel from the Pacific yew tree, trabectedin from sea squirts, and doxorubicin from a bacterium.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), offers comprehensive information, including safety, research, clinical trials, how to talk to health-care providers, and how to pick a CAM practitioner. Treatments are listed alphabetically to help people research particular ones.

The Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine offers similar information. The office is part of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), another component of the NIH.

The NCI also has reports written for both patients and professionals on complementary and alternative medicine.

The NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements has extensive information.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a section on how to protect yourself from cancer-treatment fraud.

So does the American Society of Clinical Oncology at Cancer.Net. also lists cancer myths ( and explains how to evaluate health websites (

The Society for Integrative Oncology has news and features.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has a good FAQ about herbs, botanicals and other such products, as well as an easily searchable list for more information.