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NCCIH Clinical Digest

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Complementary and Integrative Approaches for Cancer Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects

May 2015
Woman with laptop computer.

© Fuse/Thinkstock

Many people who have been diagnosed with cancer use complementary health approaches. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches by Americans, 65 percent of respondents who had ever been diagnosed with cancer had used complementary approaches. Those who had been diagnosed with cancer were more likely than others to have used complementary approaches for general wellness, immune enhancement, and pain management.

A substantial amount of evidence suggests that some complementary health approaches, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and yoga may help to manage some cancer symptoms and side effects of treatment. For other complementary approaches (e.g., natural products), the evidence is more limited. This issue of the digest provides information on the evidence base on complementary and integrative health approaches for cancer-related symptoms and treatment side effects.

Modality and Summary of Current Evidence


a Mind and Body Approach

There is evidence that acupuncture can help to manage chemotherapeutic-induced nausea and vomiting in cancer patients. There isn’t enough evidence to determine whether acupuncture relieves cancer pain or other symptoms such as treatment-related hot flashes or xerostomia.

Read more about the evidence-base of acupuncture


a Mind and Body Approach

Studies suggest that massage therapy may help to relieve cancer-related symptoms such as pain, nausea, anxiety, and depression. However, investigators haven’t reached any conclusions about the effects of massage therapy because rigorous research in this field is lacking.

Read more about the evidence-base of massage

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

a Mind and Body Approach

There is evidence that mindfulness-based stress reduction can help patients with cancer relieve anxiety, stress, fatigue, and general mood and sleep disturbances, thus improving their quality of life. Most participants in mindfulness studies have been patients with early-stage cancer, primarily breast cancer, so the evidence favoring mindfulness training is strongest for this population.

Read more about the evidence-base of mindfulness-based stress reduction


a Mind and Body Approach

Preliminary evidence suggests that yoga may help to decrease anxiety, depression, and stress in people with cancer. It also may help to lessen fatigue in breast cancer patients and survivors. However, only a small number of yoga studies in cancer patients have been completed, and some of the research has not been high quality.

Read more about the evidence-base of yoga


a Natural Product

Recent studies suggest that the herb ginger may help to control nausea related to cancer chemotherapy when used as adjunctive therapy to conventional anti-emetics.

Read more about the evidence-base of ginger

Scientific Literature

NCCIH Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, DHHS. NCCIH Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on complementary health approaches, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCIH-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is dedicated to exploring complementary health products and practices in the context of rigorous science, training complementary health researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCIH's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCIH Web site at NCCIH is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.


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This page last modified October 19, 2018