The role of complementary therapies within orthodox medicine.

The role of complementary therapies within orthodox medicine.

Suzie Ruggles BRCP, AOR.

September 2006

Suzie Ruggles was Complementary Team Leader in the Haematology and Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at St George’s Hospital in London.  


People living with the diagnosis of cancer or haematological conditions such as CLL frequently suffer symptoms as a direct result of the disease or as a side effect of chemotherapy treatment. Because of their diagnosis they may also suffer significant psychological, social and spiritual trauma as they come to terms with their illness and its impact on their lives. Conventional medicine cannot be expected to meet the full range of these complex needs, but there is a growing evidence that the addition of complementary approaches to orthodox medicine may help relieve some of the symptom burden and may also assist patients in developing their ability to cope with the illness (Tavares 2003).

Combining complementary and orthodox approaches is creating a new model of healthcare; a model based on promoting and maintaining health and facilitating personal coping mechanisms through patient training in self-help approaches (Downer et al 1994; Clover et al 1995).

Loss of personal control, depression, threat to survival and self-image are common reported fears of patients undergoing chemotherapy (Greer and Moorey, 1994; Speigel, 1986; Stringer, 2000).

The most frequently cited reasons for the use of complementary therapies by patients are:

  • Dissatisfaction with conventional cancer treatment.
  • Help with side effects of treatment.
  • An emphasis on self-help approaches and psychological benefits (Downer et al 1994; Clover et al 1995; Barraclough 2001:vi).

It has been estimated that approximately one third of cancer patients will access complementary therapies to help alleviate some of the complex issues related to living with cancer (Rees et al 2000; Lewith et al 2002). Whilst (Taylor, 1999; Bell, 2001) found substantial improvements in anxiety and depression were achieved using relaxing, non-invasive therapies such as aromatherapy, reflexology and visualisation.

Government appointed agencies and other leading organisations are now recognising the value of including complementary approaches in healthcare practice and are supporting moves towards greater integration (Calman and Hine 1995; House of Lords 2000; NICE 2004).  In addition patients themselves are being encouraged to have a greater say on the future shape of their healthcare (Department of Health 2000). Therefore, given that patients themselves recognise the value of complementary therapies it is likely that they will demand a more integrated approach to their care.

Where do I start? 

Complementary Therapies is a very broad term and I often prefer to sub-divide it into an overview of categories.  Some or all of the following complementary therapies are offered at some cancer or leukaemia centres and are considered suitable for patients undergoing or recovering from chemotherapy:

A. Physical Therapies:

This includes therapies such as massage (often including aromatherapy massage) and reflexology where the practitioner applies gentle, specific massage techniques to help ease tension and anxiety to encourage healing and dissipation of tension.  This aspect of therapeutic touch can be very supportive and calming.

B. Mind-Body Therapies:

This includes Meditation, Relaxation and Visualisation. These are essentially practices which aim to create a balance between mind and body with the intention to generating increased serenity and inner calmness which is believed to be an important component in helping to assist the body’s self-healing process. These therapies are particularly self-empowering as, with the correct guidance, the individual can learn to repeat the techniques themselves to help maintain their own inner calmness.

C. Energetic Therapies

This includes Reiki, Bio-energy, Healing. These involve the practitioner placing their hands gently on or over the surface of the body to engage the patient’s own self-healing ability. It may help to reduce stress and anxiety and generate a feeling of well-being.

There are, of course other categories of complementary therapies which I haven’t included in this article as I am not able to comment on their suitability with cancer treatment, such as, for example: acupuncture, herbal medicine or homeopathy and would recommend you discuss this with your doctor before commencing with a treatment.

Always try to discuss your decisions about using complementary therapy with your GP or hospital doctor.  It is important that you keep your healthcare professionals involved in what you are doing so they can work together to help you get the best healthcare. It is very important to tell your doctor what complementary treatments you are taking as well as letting your complementary practitioner know about any medicines your doctor has prescribed for you and any other complementary treatments you are having. 

How do I find a practitioner?

When you have decided which complementary therapy you would like to use, the next step is to find a practitioner that is registered and insured with a professional body. 

For more information on these and all complementary therapies a good resource for information is:

Cancer research UK:


A useful source of information on different complementary therapies can be found on Macmillan’s website.  Cancer and complementary therapies

A useful source of information on different complementary therapies can be found on  Macmillan;s website Types of complementary therapy