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Complementary Medicine and Colon Cancer


Updated August 29, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) goes by many aliases, including natural, holistic and alternative therapy. Regardless of what you call it, any practice outside of what is prescribed by your doctor may affect your outcome.

History of CAM

Although CAM has recently re-emerged in Western medicine, it has been in practice for thousands of years. Complementary medicine techniques are well-documented in both ancient Chinese and Egyptian cultures. If you're looking for something in current context, consider the last time you put honey in your tea for a sore throat or took a deep breath when you were stressed. Without even giving it a name, you were practicing alternative therapy.

Common Types of CAM

There are dozens of widely accepted complementary medicine techniques available. However, before you initiate any complementary or alternative practice, you should talk to your physician -- especially if you are already undergoing treatment for colon cancer. Although they seem relatively benign, some of these therapies have the potential to interfere with your medical treatment. Currently, the most popular forms of CAM include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy
  • Herbal therapy
  • Reflexology
  • Humor or music therapy
  • Guided imagery or meditation
  • Therapeutic touch
  • Yoga

Although the terms alternative therapy and complementary therapy are often used interchangeably, it is inaccurate. Complementary therapy is used in conjunction with Western medicine, whereas alternative therapies are used instead of a suggested Western medicine therapy. Many people are looking to the newer term, integrative or holistic medicine, which incorporates all aspects of treatment, both complementary and science-based.

Symptom Relief

Although there is no evidence proving that CAM therapies can cure disease such as colon cancer, there are studies that state they may be helpful in reducing some of the more uncomfortable side effects. Many cancer survivors claim that it just "felt good" to be doing something, anything, to help their doctors fight the cancer. Some people consider CAM therapies to help reduce symptoms such as:

  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Weakness or lethargy
  • Sadness
  • Immunosuppression

Mind-Body Harmony

Several CAM therapies aim to re-establish a mind-body connection and harmony. It is believed that when there is disharmony, physical manifestations can ensue in the form of discomforting symptoms and depression. CAM therapies aimed toward mind-body connection include meditation, guided imagery, humor and music therapy, to name a few. However, depression is a serious illness and should not be ignored. If you are undergoing treatment for colon cancer and have lost enjoyment in pleasurable things, have difficulty sleeping, are anxious or have frequent mood swings, talk to your doctor.

Natural Doesn't Always Equal Safe

Just because you can buy them over the counter (without a prescription) doesn't always mean that herbs are safe. Many herbal concoctions have been proven to be dangerous for young children, pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, surgical candidates or people on chemotherapy or radiation therapy. According to the American Cancer Society, some herbs to avoid include:

  • Aloe (aloe vera)
  • Comfrey
  • Kava
  • St. John's wort
  • Yohimbe
  • Licorice

Ongoing Research

Through efforts of the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, studies continue to explore the relationship between physical and mental comfort for cancer patients using CAM. Many such studies strive to find a link between herb use and decreased symptoms. If you want more information about CAM, cancer and research studies, talk to your oncologist.


American Cancer Society. (2006). American Cancer Society's Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer. Clifton Fields, NE: American Cancer Society.

American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Acupuncture. Accessed July 15, 2012.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (n.d.). Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction. Accessed July 15, 2012.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (n.d.). Center for Herbal Research on Colorectal Cancer. Accessed July 13, 2012.

The Cochrane Libary. (2008). Chinese Medical Herbs for Chemotherapy Side Effects in Colorectal Cancer Patients. Accessed July 15, 2012.

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