Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Treatments

Traditional, complementary and alternative treatment may also be called ‘therapy’ or ‘medicine’.  These treatments are sometimes called ‘holistic’ because they don’t just look at how the disease affects the body, they aim to treat the whole person – emotionally, mentally and spiritually as well as physically.

Complementary Medicine/Therapy may be used alongside conventional treatment, often to help with the side effects of breast cancer treatment, and to boost healing and recovery and help with overall healthiness.  It is also used by those living with cancer and metastatic cancer to relieve symptoms of the disease.

Alternative Medicine/Therapy covers the same techniques as complementary medicine and the expression is used when these therapies are used instead of conventional treatments.

Some examples of complementary / alternative therapies are given in the box below

Traditional Medicine uses the knowledge and practices developed by the indigenous peoples of North America over thousands of years. It includes using natural plants with healing powers as well as ceremonies such as smudging and sweats.

Traditional medicine can be used as either a complementary or alternative treatment for cancer BUT see the second box below for what conventional medicine says about using complementary/alternative/traditional medicine.

  • Acupuncture
  • Art Therapy
  • Chinese Medicine
  • Chiropractic
  • Herbalism
  • Homeopathy
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Naturopathy
  • Osteopathy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Reflexology
  • Reiki
  • T’ai Ch
  • Yoga

The following websites have pages about complementary and alternative therapy for those with cancer:

Canadian Cancer Society: complementary therapies

Canadian Cancer Society: traditional medicine


  • Doctors tend to be cautious about complementary etc therapies because they have not been scientifically tested and proven like conventional cancer treatments.
  • Increasingly however, conventional medicine practitioners agree that many complementary therapies are helpful for cancer suffers, especially for dealing with side effects, the emotional effects of having cancer, and for those living with cancer and for palliative (advanced cancer / end of life) care.
  • Conventional doctors will almost always strongly advise that these treatments should only be used as complementary to conventional treatment and NOT as an alternative, especially for early stage cancers.
  • However, many doctors do accept that for palliative care or cancer in a very advanced stage, conventional treatment may offer little or no benefit at a cost of severe side effects. In these circumstances, alternative therapies may help significantly.

If you do want to follow traditional healing or other complementary / alternative therapy it is ESSENTIAL that you discuss it with your doctor and healthcare workers first.  This is because some therapies can react strongly with conventional medicines.  For example, some chemotherapy drugs make you very dehydrated so it could be dangerous to go to a sweat lodge.

When choosing a complementary or alternative therapist, make sure it is someone who is properly trained and registered with an accredited body for that type of therapy.

Make sure the therapist or healer knows the full details of the conventional treatment you are having for breast cancer.


These treatments are generally not offered by the conventional Canadian public healthcare system as part of the cancer journey.  If you have additional healthcare cover, for example through your work, it might cover the cost of some treatments such as massage therapy. You need to check with the provider in advance whether they will pay for the therapy you would like.

The Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton does offer some art therapy for patients and their families.