Complementary and alternative therapies for cancer 

Sadly friends and family have been telling me about loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer. One of the first questions they ask is: “What alternative treatments are there?” Something to be precise about straight away is that there are ‘alternative’ and ‘complementary’ therapies out there. Alternatives mean replacing medical treatment and complementary means having it alongside what your doctor recommends. They can be entirely different to each other or overlap. I did traditional medical treatment and used quite a few complementary therapies too. The decision about your treatment is entirely your choice but I thought I would write something that might help it become an informed one as much as possible.

You just found out you have cancer. Your world has exploded into a billion tiny, sharp pieces. The doctor has given you a weighty pile of leaflets and booklets to digest as you leave the hospital in a daze. From wigs to lymphedema, chemotherapy to carcinoma, it’s a dizzying blur of information and action. Then you’re supposed to ‘help’ yourself by trawling through the miracle cures and wonder treatments offered by complementary and alternative practitioners. It’s a bit too much.

Or maybe having all this information, all this potential is helping you. It’s making you feel it’s not a done deal. It’s making you feel hope and taking action to help yourself is easing your anxieties.

We’re all different.

Just as our cancers are all different. Just as our treatments are and just as whatever reaction or action we take will be.

Whatever you chose to do next, I think the most important thing is what helps you reduce stress. Because stress is terrible for cancer and reducing it is a worthy goal right now. No problem, you’re only facing a deadly disease, right! Yes, this is the toughest challenge you will ever face. It will require every drop of stamina and resilience you can muster. You will have to put your own needs first. You will have to push open a space in your life for what you need to do. Your world and those around you will be reshaped in that image.

Massage, walking on the beach, acupuncture, counselling, yoga, dancing, sewing, stand-up comedy. The thing that brings you peace or joy is the best thing right now. Whatever works for you, and only you can answer that, will help you with what’s coming.

If you don’t know what works for you, it might help to try out a few things and see what does. When I was in treatment, I found that mindfulness meditation helped with those moments of emotion-killing depression, terror of dying and deep worry about loved ones being left behind. I used an app (yes, there’s an app for everything) called Buddhify2. It cost £1.99 and has a meditation for every situation. From waiting around for appointments to being in pain or coping with existential crisis, I found it incredibly helpful.

So you’re feeling relaxed now. Next best thing you can do for yourself is get some exercise and eat as healthy as you can manage. There’s no big complicated mystery or process about these things. They’re simple actions and don’t come wrapped in promises or big price tags. But after stress, a lack of exercise and good food are going to be your main issues. Both for helping slow down the cancer and coping with treatment, recovery and recurrence. I can not say this enough. If you were sporty before diagnosis, carry on. If you weren’t, like me, walk round the block or to the end of the street. If you can get to the beach, or into the garden, or to the forest where you can exercise the body and ease the mind, even better.

Build it up slowly, don’t rush it. Your energy levels will start to plummet once treatment begins so keep as active as you can cope with. Only you will know when you’ve done too much or too little. Some days during chemo, I had to ration how many times I went up and down the stairs. You will have those days. But on the other days, try to keep moving.

There are many, many diets out there that claim to cure cancer. There is no evidence for any of them. None. There is only evidence for a balanced, nutritious diet. Your hospital will most likely have a nutritionist on staff so it’s worth paying them a visit. You may not want to eat normally when you’re in chemo so find the healthiest version of what you can stomach. Some days all I could eat was rice. The important thing is to keeping feeding your body nutrients and not give it extra work to do. I stopped drinking alcohol and cut out sugar completely.

There is some good evidence linking obesity with cancers and one of the connections between the two is through insulin production. In fact some studies found that the diabetes drug Metformin, worked to reduce tumours. Cancers over-express insulin receptors. That means there are tiny little locks all over cancer cells that only insulin fits, like a key. This allows the cell to farm glucose and grow faster. So anything that makes insulin spike in your body is not good. But in the same way that all cancers are different, so too are the responses. This may not be an issue for you. I made the decision that it didn’t hurt me to give up sugar even if my cancer wasn’t tested for insulin receptors. There are lots of other health reasons to cut out sugar anyway.

In terms of all the ‘natural’ remedies out there, I only found a few with a hint of evidence behind them. One was cannabis to help with pain relief and nausea from chemotherapy. I took every anti-vomiting drug the doctor offered and none worked effectively. All chemotherapies are different though and you may react differently even to the same drugs I had. So nausea may not be an issue and the medicine the doctor gives you may work wonders. For me, I waited until my fourth cycle of chemo before I tried cannabis. I wish I hadn’t been too scared to try it sooner. I wish it was prescribed for me. It made the whole thing bearable and possibly prevented me from reducing my dose of chemo. A caveat though is that it is illegal to possess cannabis although highly unlikely the police would prosecute or arrest a cancer patient. But of course I’m not advocating you buy illegal drugs. It is possible to get an prescribed antiemetic called Nabilone from your doctor which is derived from cannabis.

Another bi-product of cannabis is CBD oil. I found some good studies on the efficacy of this. Although the studies were all done in a lab and they haven’t moved to full clinical trials, this was solid enough for me to give it a try. The potential benefits to me outweighed any side effects. CBD oil is legal in the UK and only illegal if it contains THC which is the psychoactive part of the cannabis it is derived from.

The last thing I found useful was curcumin. It’s the active part of turmeric. No amount of sprinkling turmeric in smoothies will cut it though. You need a high concentration. The one I use is the one tested in the most reliable study I found. It is pricey and the one big expense we decided upon. But again it’s not regarded as proven clinically. I made choices to take things I felt had the strongest evidence for and that did no harm.

There are others. Many, many others. I found no good evidence for any of them. Not even pre-clinical trials. But evidence is changing constantly and if it makes you feel better about taking action on your cancer and it does no harm and doesn’t bankrupt you, then why not. Even if it’s only the placebo effect at play, that is one powerful mama. So don’t discount it.

That said, some things do harm. Watch out for anything to do with apricot kernels or bitter almond. They produce cyanide in your body and one side effect is death. Some of the others like Gerson therapy, Black Cohosh and Chaparral have no evidence they work but can actually do serious damage. Antioxidants or high dose vitamins seem innocuous but can interfere with your medical treatment. Cannabis can also have an antioxidant effect so it’s a balancing act when deciding on using this. Definitely run everything by your doctor first and research thoroughly or rely on cancer charities who’ve got your back.

What I would definitely say is don’t reject traditional medical treatment. It has a proven track record. It has been tested and tested and tested again for safety and reliability. Treatment for cancer is brutal. It will be marathon after marathon of taking your body and mind to its limits and beyond. But it is your best chance.

Be wary of non-medical people who claim grand things for you. They rely on vulnerability, despair and equate anecdotes with evidence. Look for the studies, seek out the evidence from peer-reviewed journals like Nature, BMJ or The Lancet or aggregators like PubMed or Science Alert. Avoid Youtube at all costs. Be wary of sites like David Wolfe, GreenMedInfo, Dr Oz, Dr Mercola, Food Babe or Natural News. Anyone that claims their remedy is ‘better than chemo’ warrants a skeptical eye.

Make the best decision you can or ask someone you trust to help you find what you need. The cancer charities like MacMillan or Cancer Research UK have no vested interest in selling you anything. Trust them. There are good reliable resources out there. Use them. The ultimate choice about your life and treatment is yours to make. I would only say make sure you have all you need to make it an informed one. I wish you smooth treatment, manageable side effects and a peaceful mind. Good luck.



Stress effects on the lymphatic system, encouraging cancer proliferation:

Diet and exercise:

Obesity, insulin and cancer:

Cannabis to treat nausea:

Honest look at CBD oil:

Honest look at curcumin:

Complementary and Alternative Therapies at a glance (Cancer research UK):

MacMillan’s list: