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Complementary Therapies in Cancer and Palliative Care

We know that the physical and emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis and its treatment can be very challenging. More and more people are using complementary therapies to help manage their stress and anxiety before, during and after treatment.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that complementary therapies:

  • encourages relaxation
  • eases pain
  • reduces anxiety
  • improves fatigue
  • promotes a sense of well being

and specifically:

  • relieves constipation in patients with advanced cancer (Lai et al 2011)
  • reduces chemotherapy related fatigue and anxiety (Karagozoglu et al 2013)
  • elicits parasympathetic nervous system response (Diego et al 2009)
  • reduces serum cortisol and prolactin (Stringer et al 2008)
  • has a psychoneuroimmunological influence via massage, touch, smell of essential oils and by teaching relaxation techniques (Bauer-Wu 2002)

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Aromatherapy uses blends of essential oils extracted from plants. Usually, it is associated with massage, where the oils are blended with vegetable base oil and applied to the skin. Essential oils may help in reducing stress and therefore help with the ability to cope and promote a sense of well being.

Gentle massage, with or without the use of essential or base oils, can be used to relax and relieve muscle tension. It may help to life mood and improve sleep patterns. The beneficial effects of massage can be experienced even when only a small area of the body is massaged, such as the hands, feet or lower legs. It may also help to address feelings of anxiety, tension and to reduce stress.

Reflexology is a therapy based on the belief that there are reflex areas in the feet and hands which correspond to the organs and different parts of the body. It is a specialised form of hand or foot massage where gentle pressure is applied to specific point. Reflexology may help to alleviate symptoms caused by cancer or its treatment.

Energy Therapies
Energy therapies include Reiki, therapeutic touch and spiritual healing. Reiki is one of the most well-known energy therapies. Reiki is Japanese for ‘universal life energy’ a term used to describe a natural system to help bring about an improved sense of well being. This tradition was founded by Dr Usui in the early 20th century. With all of the energy therapies you can either sit or lie down, fully clothed, while the therapist places their hands above, or on, certain parts of the body. You may start to feel very relaxed during the treatment and this may last for some time after treatment.

Finding a therapist
Some GP practices offer therapy sessions or may be able to recommend a qualified local therapist. There is a Public Register of therapists and Professional Associations also maintain registers of appropriately trained and qualified therapist.

The following is a checklist of practical steps that we recommend you take to reassure yourself before trying a particular therapy or therapist:

  • establish what the therapy is trying to achieve
  • use a therapist who has a specialised qualification and is insured
  • ask what experience the therapist has in treating someone with cancer
  • speak to the therapist prior to making a booking to ensure you feel comfortable with them
  • check what the fees are
  • find out what is available on the NHS in treatment centres you may already be using

Complementary therapists working in Cancer and Palliative Care base their practice on the National Guidelines for the Use of Complementary Therapies in Supportive and Palliative Care: The Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health (Tavares 2003).

Specialised training is offered at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, Manchester


Complementary Therapy References

Bauer-Wu S (2002) Psychoneuroimmunological Part I: Physiology Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing Vol 6 N3 1-

Bauer-Wu S (2002) Psychoneuroimmunological Part II: Mind-Body Interventions Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing Vol 6 No 4 1-4

Benson H, Breary J, Carol M (1974) The relaxation response Psychiatry 37 (1) 37-45

Diego M, Field T (2009) Moderate pressure massage elicits a parasympathetic nervous system response International Journal of Neuroscience 119 630-638

Gambles M, Crook M, Wilkinson S (2002) Evaluation of a hospice based reflexology service: a qualitative audit of patient perceptions European Journal of Oncology Nursing 6 (1) 37-44

Hills H, Taylor E (2001) Complementary therapies in palliative care: audit report East Lancashire Integrated Health Care Centre 1:09.00-21.08.01

Karagozoglu S, Kahve E (2013) Effects of back massage on chemotherapy-related fatigue and anxiety: supportive care and therapeutic touch in cancer nursing Applied Nursing Research Http://

Kutner J, Smith M, Corbin L, Hemphill L, Benton K, Mellis K, Beaty B, Felton S, Yamashita T (2008) Massage therapy versus simple touch to improve pain and mood in patients with advanced cancer: a randomised trial Annals of International Medicine 149 (6): 369-379

Lai T.K.T, Cheung M.C, Lo C.K, Ng K.L, Fung Y.H, Tong M, Yau C.C (2011) Effectiveness of aroma massage on advanced cancer patients with constipation: a pilot study Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice Vol 17 37-43

Mitchell A, Cormack M (1998) The Therapeutic Relationship in Complementary Health Care Churchill Livingston

Mount B, Boston P, Cohen S (2007) Healing connections: on moving from suffering to a sense of well-being Journal of Pain and Symptom Management Vol 33 N 4 372-388

Post-White J, Kinney M, Savik K, Bernsten Gau J, Wilcox C, Lerner L (2003) Therapeutic Massage and healing touch improve symptoms in cancer Integrative Cancer Therapies 2 (4) 332-344

Sims S (1986) Slow stroke back massage for cancer patients Nursing Times Vol 82 No13 47-49

Stringer J, Swindell R, Dennis M (2008) Massage in patients undergoing intensive chemotherapy reduces serum cortisol and prolactin Psycho-Oncology Vol 17 1024-1031

Wilkie D, Kampbell J, Cutshall S, Halabiky H, Harmon H, Johnson L, Weinacht L, Rake-Marona M (2000) Effects of massage on pain intensity, analgesics and quality of life in patients with cancer pain: a pilot study of a randomised clinical trial conducted within Hospice care delivery The Hospice Journal Vol 15 (3) 31-53

Wilkinson S, Love S, Westcombe A, Gambles M, Burgess C, Cargill A, Young T, Maher J, Ramirez A (2007) Effectiveness of aromatherapy massage in the management of anxiety and depression in patients with cancer: a multicentre randomised control trial Journal of Clinical Oncology Vol 25 N5 532-538