Complementary Therapy and Alternative Therapy: What’s the Difference?

The use of “complementary therapy” and “alternative therapy” is often used as a single category. They may also be combined into one phrase as complementary and alternative therapies or CAM to refer to medical products and practices that fall outside of the standard medical care.

A research by Hornerber et al published in 2011 suggested that almost 50% of cancer patients use complementary and alternative therapies at some time during their illness. This was a huge increase compared to the 25% users in the 1970s. Although there is no evidence yet that these prevent or cure cancer, people opt to use them to help them feel better after going through a standard treatment like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Moreover, it can help reduce their symptoms and give them a sense of contribution for their own care.

Although complementary therapy and alternative therapy may sound to have the same meaning, they are not exactly the same. The US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even use different standard definitions for these two categories of therapy.

Let’s take a look at how complementary therapy and alternative therapy differ from each other and what their overlaps are.

What is complementary therapy?

A complementary therapy means that a non-mainstream practice is used along with standard medical treatment but is not considered by itself a standard treatment.

On some occasions, complementary therapies may be prescribed by the doctor for the reason that many cancer patients reported positive feedback after using one. They are known to reduce the side effects of cancer treatment, improve physical and emotional well-being, and improve recovery from cancer.

Examples of complementary therapy

  • Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy involves using essential oils from flowers, herbs, or trees to help improve a person’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. It is often used by inhaling the oil or applying the diluted form of the oil directly to the skin.

This therapy may be used along with other complementary treatments, such as massage and acupuncture. It may also be used with standard medical treatments to manage cancer symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment. Research suggests that essential oils help manage nausea, vomiting, and many other health-related conditions.

  • Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves the placement of sterile, thin, stainless steel needles at different points of the body. The needles can be stimulated using techniques like manual stimulation, electrical stimulation, or heat application.

According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine Theory, acupuncture treatment influences qi or chi, the life force energy that flows through the body. This flow is the one that indicates one’s health. So if there is a disruption in a person’s qi, it is through acupuncture that restores that flow and brings back the balance to his health.

On the other hand, according to neuroscience research, acupuncture works by modifying the nervous system through stimulation. The needling process is the one responsible for releasing neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins so a person can feel pain relief and get the feeling of being well.

  • Massage therapy

It is a type of therapy where the soft tissues of the body are rubbed, kneaded, stroked, and tapped to promote relaxation, ease tension, reduce pain, and increase comfort. There is also ongoing research on the benefits of massage therapy’s subspecialty called oncology massage. The possible benefits include the reduction of nerve pain caused by chemotherapy.

  • Yoga

Another important benefit of complementary therapies is the reduction of stress and anxiety. This may be achieved through practicing yoga. This ancient system of practices employs controlled breathing, relaxation techniques, poses to stretch various muscle groups, and meditation.

What is alternative therapy?

Alternative therapy, also known as alternative medicine, is generally used to replace a standard medical treatment. There are claims based on experimental results from the laboratory and individual testimonials suggesting that alternative therapies can actively slow down the growth of or cure cancer.

People use alternative therapy for a number of reasons. One is to use all means they know to fight their cancer. And since the common approach for alternative therapy is the use of the mind, body, and things found in nature, others prefer this treatment to experience less side effects.

Read Alternative Cancer Therapy for more information.

Examples of alternative therapy

  • Amygdalin (Laetrile, Vitamin B17)

Amygdalin is a compound found in bitter almonds, apricot stones, and peach stones. Its man-made form is called Laetrile, which is called Vitamin B17 by some suppliers. Suppliers of Laetrile claim that it can slow or stop cancer growth.

With the negative side effects associated with it, the European Commission and Food and Drug Administration have banned the use of this compound. Some people have had cyanide poisoning upon taking it because the amygdalin compound changes to cyanide when processed by the body.

  • Cannabis oil

Cannabis oil mainly contains a psychoactive substance,  cannabinoid delta-9-THC. It also has another type of cannabinoid called cannabidiol or CBD, an agent known to relieve pain, decrease inflammation, and suppress anxiety without causing the delta-9-THC “high”.

The oil may be orally taken, through inhalation, or by spraying under the tongue.

  • Metabolic therapy

Gerson therapy, the most popular type of metabolic therapy includes raw fruit and vegetable diet, vitamin and mineral supplements, and enzyme supplements. A combination of these help flush toxins out of the body, although there is no medical evidence that proves its effect on treating cancer.

Safety of complementary and alternative therapies

Before starting any complementary or alternative therapy, consult with your oncologist first if it is safe and will not interfere with your ongoing treatment if you are having any. For example, antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E may protect cancer cells from being damaged by radiation and chemotherapy, so they may not be ideal for use if you are on any of these traditional cancer treatments.

Many complementary therapies are considered safe to use together with standard cancer treatments. Some doctors will generally encourage this if it helps you cope better with your illness.

Alternative therapies are also generally safe, but some may cause harm if used inappropriately. Better seek the guidance of an expert if you are considering one. After all, it is your decision to make at the end of the day.

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