Complimentary Therapies to Consider During Cancer Treatment

September 28, 2015| Health and Wellbeing /

We all want to be better sooner, so it’s not uncommon to look into complimentary therapies to complement traditional medicine while undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy. We speak to the experts about alternative treatments and why it’s valuable to talk to your specialist.

Recent statistics coming out from Britain reveal that around 67 per cent of people undergoing treatment for cancer are also using some form of alternative therapy. Interestingly, only around 50 per cent of those people are telling their specialist they are taking something.

Epworth medical oncologist, Dr Ross Jennens, says it is understandable that people want to do everything they can to give them the best chance of a healthy future.

Many of my patients come to me with information a friend or relative has read, and ask whether it would be helpful. If you are ever in doubt, ask your oncologist – we are a great source of information and we want you better too – so let’s talk about the spectrum of approaches to treatment to ensure you’re getting the most out of them.
— Dr Ross Jennens, Medical Oncologist, Epworth HealthCare

“I ask patients for a list of any extra things they are thinking about taking, and consult a specialist pharmacist to see whether any of these treatments will interfere or complement their chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

“For example, one of the aims of chemotherapy is to kill cancer cells by oxidation, therefore you probably shouldn’t take anti-oxidants during chemotherapy as they might counteract the effect of the treatment. Sometimes it’s just a matter of holding-off on certain treatments for a few days either side of their chemotherapy.

Dr Jennens says many people are under the mistaken belief that if a supplement is labelled ‘natural’ it is therefore safe. 

“This isn’t necessarily true. If a supplement is believed to have an effect, it can equally cause side-effects or interfere with other medications. Unfortunately the vast majority of supplements and herbal medications haven’t been studied with every different type of chemotherapy to see if they help or interfere. 

I am also worried when patients pay large sums of money to companies selling unproven treatments. It’s easy to be fooled by a fancy website, or do what a relative tells you to do just because it helped a neighbour. I believe if a treatment really worked, we would all be using it.
— Dr Ross Jennens, Medical Oncologist, Epworth HealthCare

There are a number of adjunctive therapies – meaning therapies in addition to the main treatment plan – to help alleviate some of the common side effects of conventional treatments, such as fatigue, sleep, nausea and taste changes. 

Alternative therapies don’t need to be vitamins or supplements. Meditation, group therapy and massage are some of the most common complementary therapies Australian women with breast cancer are using, according to a survey by Cancer Australia.

The first adjunctive therapy Dr Jennens likes to advocate is exercise. “Being active will help with fatigue – so even if you can’t run, walking briskly will help you feel better and you will sleep more if you used up some energy.

“I also advocate muscle strengthening exercise such as yoga or pilates to help with joint aches and pain. They have been shown to help and don’t cause any adverse reactions with your treatment,” he says.

Sleep can be affected by chemotherapy and radiotherapy, as well as the additional stress and worry.

“Often people rest during the day, but as a consequence have trouble sleeping during the night. I recommend one daytime sleep of one to two hours if needed, and trying to keep awake the rest of the day in order to sleep better at night,” Dr Jennens says.

Diet is another key area, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works.

“Sometimes people need to eat more to build up enough energy for their treatment, where others may find themselves less active and eating more. In general, a balanced diet that is full of fresh ingredients will boost your immune system, which is important when immunity is low during treatment.”

For many people, food tastes change during treatment and they find themselves no longer liking certain foods. “Much of this is trial and error – try adding salt or sugar to foods to alter the taste to your liking. If you are experiencing nausea during treatment, try 5–6 smaller meals a day rather than three larger ones.

“Consulting a dietitian can be very helpful during treatment,” he says.

Dr Jennens believes that many patients worry they haven’t done everything they possibly can, which pushes them towards alternative therapies – particularly supplements – during their chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.

“Just remember that your health practitioner is on your side, and you are better to inform your doctor of what you are thinking of doing or taking, and seek advice. We are all looking for the same outcome, using evidence-based solutions,” he says.


Epworth HealthCare runs a breast cancer outpatient rehabilitation program (the Enhance program) at Epworth Camberwell and Epworth Hawthorn for women undergoing and after completing their chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The multi-disciplinary program covers psychology, exercise and diet.

Read our Goodness Me story on the ENHANCE program

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