Complementary therapies – what are they and are they safe?

3 minute read time.
Complementary therapies – what are they and are they safe?

Some people with cancer choose to use complementary therapies as well as conventional cancer treatment. Complementary therapies may help people feel better and help them cope with cancer symptoms or the side effects of treatment. They do not claim to treat cancer.

Complementary therapies are different to alternative therapies. Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medical treatments and some claim to treat the cancer. However, they have not been scientifically proven to cure cancer and some may be harmful.

Why do people use complementary therapies?

Many people living with cancer find complementary therapies to be a positive addition to their treatment plan.

Complementary therapies may:

  • help ease tension, stress, and anxiety
  • reduce pain
  • improve quality of sleep
  • help you cope with cancer symptoms
  • reduce some side effects of cancer treatment.

Are complementary therapies safe?

Some complementary therapies may not be safe to use alongside your cancer treatment. Always talk to your medical team before using any complementary therapy. It is important to find out whether the complementary therapy may affect your cancer treatment in any way.

How do I choose a complementary therapist?

Complementary therapy is not regulated in the same way as conventional cancer treatment.

You should always see a qualified person who is on a register. The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council  has a register of qualified practitioners, which you can use to find therapists in your area.

Before you have any therapy, ask the therapist what the aim of the treatment is. Never see a therapist who claims to be able to treat or cure cancer with complementary therapies.

What types of complementary therapies are there?

There are many different types of complementary therapy. Some of the most common therapies include:


Massage therapy involves a person applying pressure to your body by stroking, kneading or tapping it. It can be relaxing for both your mind and body.

Massage can also help to relieve pain and tension and improve your mood.

You should only see a massage therapist who has been specially trained in treating people with cancer. Speak to your cancer doctor or nurse about any safety precautions you need to be aware of before you have massage therapy.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation involves you becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings. You are encouraged to note your feelings calmly, without judgement. There are different types of meditation.   

Meditation may help you:

  • feel relaxed
  • feel less anxious or depressed
  • cope better with chronic pain.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation. It encourages you to focus on the present moment. This can help you to cope with worries about the future.

You may be able to access mindfulness classes through your hospital, GP, or a cancer support centre.

Meditation and mindfulness can also be done at home. There are different websites and apps that teach meditation. For example:


In acupuncture, the therapist places fine needles under the skin at certain points of your body. Acupuncture may help relieve pain and other symptoms. For example, it may help with feeling or being sick.

Acupuncture may be offered in NHS hospitals as well as pain clinics and hospices. It is generally considered to be safe when done by a trained professional. Some people may not be able to have acupuncture. Before you have acupuncture, check with your cancer doctor that it will be safe for you to have.

Which complementary therapy should I choose?

When choosing a complementary therapy, think about what you would like. You could ask yourself:

  • What do I want the treatment to do?
  • Do I want a one-off treatment, or to have a treatment regularly?
  • Is the treatment I want available?

Where can I access complementary therapies?

Lots of cancer support centres offer complementary therapies. Some hospitals also have complementary therapy teams for people with cancer. Ask your cancer doctor or nurse about where you may be able to have complementary therapies in your area.

Where can I find more information about complementary therapy?

You can find more information about complementary therapies:

You can also contact the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00. The line is open 7 days a week, 8am-8pm. Our support line has access to an interpretation service to speak to someone in your language, including BSL. When you call, start the conversation by requesting your language first in English.