Historically and because of social and cultural influences, many different philosophies regarding health have developed around the world. This has resulted in different attitudes towards illness and how to treat illness once it occurs. Most cultures perceive health and illness as a continuum, which at any point during our lives, we are somewhere in-between.

Modern medicine and technological advances in the past few decades have meant that many cancers that were previously untreatable, may now be successfully treated.

In Ireland the therapies used to treat cancer are generally based on orthodox western medicine, which uses scientific experimentation to prove the benefits of a particular treatment. These therapies have been tested both in the laboratory and subsequently verified by clinical research.

The majority of patients receive medical treatment for their illness, and it is rare for patients to abandon medical treatment in favour of alternative treatments. However, many patients feel that complementary or alternative therapies may be able to help them in some way that conventional medicine cannot. This is because when diagnosed with cancer, patients have to come to terms with a serious illness that not only affects their physical but also their mental and emotional health.

While patients appreciate all that modern medicine is doing to treat their illness, they can still feel a profound sense that they have lost their good health. These feelings can persist even after physical symptoms have disappeared. While it is not exclusively true, there is a perception that modern medicine appears to mainly address the physical symptoms of any illness, in the belief that once these are resolved, that then the other symptoms will resolve themselves. Because of this perceived lack of holistic care, patients often go in search of complementary and supportive therapies. This holistic care can take many forms, from herbal remedies to faith healing.

In today’s world, due to the greater availability of information on medical topics through various publications and the Internet, there has been an increased awareness of alternative and complementary therapies in addition to conventional medical treatments. Because of this development and the great interest, it is useful for people affected by cancer to know the differences between the types of treatment that they may hear about, so that they can make informed choices that are best for their health.

Complementary therapy sections

Conventional therapies

This is the treatment that health care professionals use most of the time to treat cancer. Treatment consists of surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy (treatment using drugs). These treatments have been tested in clinical trials to ensure that they are highly effective in treating a particular cancer. The object of conventional therapy is to attack or to remove the cancer thereby allowing the patient to recover from their illness.

Origin of conventional medicines

Almost half of conventional medicines or drugs have their origins in plant extracts and other naturally occurring substances. What is interesting though, is that all of these compounds are only useful as medicines if they are used in specific or so-called ‘therapeutic’ amounts. If too little is used, these drugs don’t work and if too much of is used, then they are toxic and even poisonous! Examples of powerful plant extracts include; digitalis, a drug used to control heart function (originally isolated from the Foxglove plant), aspirin (isolated from the Willow tree), quinine (used to treat malaria, from Cinchona tree bark), and vincristine (used to treat cancer, from a Madagascan periwinkle plant). These are all beneficial drugs, when used in the correct amounts.

However, on the negative side, the two most infamous of all plant extracts is perhaps nicotine, from the tobacco plant, followed by opium extracted from the poppy plant (used to make heroin). Both of these drugs are responsible for highly addictive dependency habits, which result in diminished health. Therefore just because a remedy is made from plant or natural extracts, it should not be assumed that it has little effect. These effects can be profound and may be either beneficial or detrimental. What changes these plant extracts’ and natural compounds into effective ‘cures’ or therapies is years of careful study and research.

The same is true for surgical procedures and physical therapies, where over time; rigorous scientific and clinical observation has resulted in improved techniques and practices. The collective term for therapies that have been through this process is ‘conventional therapies’. Conventional therapies are then adopted as the standard protocol of care and treatment for a given illness based on the experimental evidence.

However, other treatments exist that have either not been as rigorously tested or have not shown clear-cut benefits. These are therapies are termed either complementary or alternative therapies.

Complementary therapies

These treatments are generally regarded as those given alongside conventional cancer treatments. They are perceived as a supplement to, but not a substitute for, conventional medical care. Complementary therapies are seen as promoting healing. They focus on strengthening the health of the individual, rather that destroying the cause of the disease. Complementary therapies include visualisation, relaxation and psychotherapy. Nowadays these three therapies are often regarded as part of standard support for patients with cancer. Other therapies which many people find helpful include; the touch therapies for example gentle massage, aromatherapy and reflexology, acupuncture, hypnotherapy, creative arts therapies for example and music therapy. Many complementary therapies involve developing and maintaining a strong sense of spirituality.

In Ireland, there are a number of centres that offer complementary therapies in addition to conventional medical therapy. For example, in St. Luke’s hospital, Dublin (which is Ireland’s flagship centre for radiotherapy) aromatherapy and therapeutic massage are available for patients with cancer. Patients that may benefit from any of these therapies are referred for treatment by nursing staff, radiographers or doctors. Additionally, Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross, has a department of complementary and Supportive Therapies, which also carries out research on complementary therapies.

Many patients that are stressed either physically or emotionally because of their illness find real benefit from theses therapies and develop an increased sense of well-being and an increased perception of their quality of life.

In recognition of the interest exhibited by the public in complementary therapies, the Department of Health has funded three full-time clinical research nurses to carry out research. These nurses are currently based in Our Lady’s Hospice.

Alternative therapies

These therapies are regarded as substitutes used instead of conventional therapies. Such Alternative therapies include diet and megavitamin therapy and immuno-augmentative (immune boosting) therapy. Most medical health care professionals believe that there is no evidence that such treatments can cure or reduce cancers. One of the main reasons why medical health care professionals have been reluctant to accept alternative therapies is that most of the treatments have never been scientifically studied or validated. Because of this they also believe that in some cases, these therapies may even prove to be harmful.

Using complementary and alternative therapies

If you are thinking of using either complementary or alternative treatments, it is important that you discuss this with your cancer specialist. Increasingly, healthcare providers are becoming familiar with complementary and alternative treatments and will either be able to advise you on the relative merits of a therapy. Alternatively, they should be able to refer you to someone who can advise you.

Tell your doctor

It is important that you inform your cancer specialist of any other treatments that you may be taking, as certain herbal remedies can interfere with the action of medicines. For example, even taking grapefruit juice can affect how your body deals with an anticancer drug like vincristine. So ask your healthcare provider to obtain valid information for you about the safety and effectiveness of a particular treatment before you begin to use it. Because of the great interest in complementary and alternative therapies, medical professionals are undertaking clinical trials and evaluations of some of these therapies and useful information may already be available.

Look for qualifications & get recommendations

You should also ensure that the practitioner that you are attending is properly qualified. Look for some sort of certification or membership of a professional association of practitioners. Training is also of vital importance. Conventional practitioners are not allowed to perform procedures, or give certain medicines without first undertaking training with a more experienced practitioner. You should expect no less from an alternative or complementary practitioner. Diagnostic and treatment skills are not acquired overnight and need continual assessment and review. A practitioner's track record is also of obvious interest.

While the above seems quite onerous, it is usual to weight the level of information that you need about a practitioner, relative to the complexity and perhaps cost of the therapy. For example in the case of an aromatherapist offering a treatment for € 60, an established practice, and personal recommendations are usually sufficient. By contrast an invasive procedure, involving surgery, radiotherapy, or hospitalisation and costing € 30,000 needs to be carefully reviewed.

Conventional medical centres

In conventional hospitals and clinics, the overall performance and running, including treatment costs are decided by a board of directors. This board of directors is made up of lay people from the community, medical personnel, legal and business persons. Collectively they have the responsibility to ensure that the hospital is run in an ethical fashion, that staff are properly trained, that records are maintained, that costs are appropriate, and that all therapies are legal, effective and administered correctly. This is a large responsibility.


It can also be beneficial to use patient support groups to discover other patient’s experiences and to find information on who are the best (and perhaps not so good) practitioners.

Financial considerations

Finally, but just as important you should remember that there are financial concerns when using certain complementary or alternative medicines that need to be considered. It is possible to spend a considerable amount of money on alternative therapies. Check out the cost of the course of treatment beforehand.