Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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People with mesothelioma often turn to complementary and alternative therapies to help treat the cancer and its effects on the mind and body. Integrating these approaches into treatment plans has helped many mesothelioma patients live longer, better lives.

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Patient Advocate Karen Selby explains alternative treatments to mesothelioma patients.
Patient Advocate Karen Selby explains alternative treatments to mesothelioma patients.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term most widely used to describe health care approaches that originate outside of mainstream medicine.

You may have seen this terminology before, but you may not know what the words “complementary” and “alternative” mean in the context of health care.

  • “Complementary” refers to approaches used in combination with mainstream medicine.
  • “Alternative” refers to approaches used in place of mainstream medicine.

Alternative medicine is not common. Most people combine nonmainstream therapies with conventional medicine. This complementary approach is also called integrative medicine.

Quick Fact:

Approximately 70 percent of people with cancer use complementary therapies.

Impact on Survival Rates

Complementary and alternative treatments don’t promise a cure for mesothelioma. In some cases, they can increase survival rates while alleviating some of the pain and suffering associated with the cancer.

Ancient cultures have used some of the following approaches for hundreds of years to treat illnesses and other maladies. Their use as modern-day palliatives for diseases such as mesothelioma is often based on historical or anecdotal records, rather than scientific evidence. Yet, many people swear by these natural alternatives and point to friends and family members who, they say, have greatly benefited from their use.

Oncology Nutrition

Adequate and balanced nutrition is important before, during and after cancer treatment. Oncologists are promoting the importance of a healthy diet in cancer care, especially to control symptoms such as nausea and difficulty swallowing. Some cancer centers even employ registered oncology dieticians to help patients create tailored meal plans.

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Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicines may lessen cancer symptoms and enhance certain cancer treatments. These medicines are made from herbs and administered in capsules, teas, creams and tinctures (concentrates of herbs in an alcohol solution). Scientific studies have proven certain herbs are effective at reducing cancer symptoms and improving the effects of cancer treatment.

Medical cannabis is considered an herbal medicine, and it can offer significant relief from pain and nausea to people with cancer. Clinical studies have proven the herb also boosts appetite during chemotherapy and improves sleep.

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Mind-Body Therapies

Mind-body therapies are practices designed to facilitate the union of body and mind. The most commonly studied types of mind-body therapies in cancer treatment include yoga, qigong, tai chi and meditation.


Yoga’s origins trace back thousands of years to ancient India. The practice is designed to enhance mindfulness through meditation and movement. Gentle yoga styles are recommended for cancer patients. Examples include laughter yoga or restorative yoga. More athletic styles are often too strenuous for people undergoing or recovering from cancer treatments. Studies show yoga can improve sleep and breathing ability while reducing stress and fatigue.

Qigong and Tai Chi

Qigong and tai chi are similar practices that unite movement with mindfulness and breathing. The disciplines originated in China and have been widely used for centuries. Studies show they can enhance quality of life, reduce stress chemicals, lessen fatigue and signs of depression, and improve survival rates in liver cancer patients.


Meditation techniques can help people cope with anxiety, depression and pain caused by cancer. Whether spiritually-focused or not, meditation may help people attain a better outlook, and this can greatly reduce stress. Many different forms of meditation produce different effects. These effects range from physical to mental to emotional. Ask your doctor if any meditation education programs, such as the mindfulness-based stress reduction technique, are available in your area.

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Body-Based Therapies

Body-based therapies use various techniques to heal pain and discomfort throughout the body. The primary ones used in cancer care include TENS therapy, chiropractic care, therapeutic massage, acupuncture and exercise.

TENS Therapy

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is a therapy that relieves pain with a low-voltage electrical current. TENS therapy, along with therapeutic massage, is often administered during chiropractic care sessions. All three therapies may help relieve pain and reduce stress in people with cancer.


Acupuncture studies show this therapy is helpful to people with cancer. It can effectively reduce pain and adverse reactions to radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Research also shows that acupuncture can reduce the occurrence of chemotherapy-related vomiting.


Though less widely known in the United States, acupressure is a form of self-massage that is based on acupuncture. Similar points throughout the body are used in acupressure and acupuncture, but no needles are involved in acupressure. Clinical trials show acupressure can reduce nausea, vomiting, fatigue, anxiety and pain.

Jin Shin Jyutsu is a type of acupressure that relies on energy pathways and pressure points to clear blockages and balance energy within the body. Trained practitioners can administer the therapy and teach patients how to do Jin Shin Jyutsu at home. One mesothelioma patient found the therapy relieved fatigue and eased digestion problems caused by chemotherapy.

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Holistic Healing Systems

The most commonly used healing systems in CAM include Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, naturopathic and osteopathic medicine. These holistic approaches offer complementary therapies to mainstream cancer care. They aim to treat the whole person, not just the ailment.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been used for thousands of years to help treat people with cancer. The majority of cancer clinical trials conducted in China for the past 100 years combined mainstream medicine with TCM. They found that certain TCM herbs, mind-body techniques, dietary changes and acupuncture can help cancer patients.


Ayurveda originated in India, and for thousands of years, it too has helped people with cancer feel better. Ayurvedic doctors treat cancer with surgery, herbal medicine, dietary changes, body-cleansing therapies and lifestyle changes.

Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic medicine focuses on disease prevention and whole-body health. It uses natural treatments and teaches good health habits to patients. Naturopathic doctors may prescribe mainstream medicines, but they commonly suggest effective natural treatments before pharmaceuticals are used. People looking for a physician who takes a natural approach and doesn’t overprescribe pharmaceuticals will find value in a naturopathic doctor.

Osteopathic Medicine

Osteopathic medicine takes an approach to health care that emphasizes the integrated nature of the human body. This holistic approach includes the importance of the musculoskeletal system, a facet that is relatively unique in mainstream health care. Osteopathic doctors prefer to take a natural approach to healing before pharmaceuticals are considered. A patient experiencing chemotherapy-related nausea may be recommended dietary changes and natural remedies such as teas and herbs. Osteopathic manipulation might be advised to patients with muscular or skeletal misalignments.

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Emotional Therapies

Emotional therapies include techniques that positively impact the emotional health of a person. This category includes counseling, support groups and pet therapy.

Mental Health Counseling

Counseling is a therapy that helps people facing cancer better cope with the experience. Counselors help people process their emotions with constructive and effective techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Many cancer centers offer free counseling services to patients.

Support Groups

Cancer support groups unite people who face similar challenges. They give patients a space and opportunity to talk through their personal struggles with others who truly understand. The emotional support and compassion found in cancer support groups is difficult to find elsewhere.

Pet Therapy

Pet therapy is quite simple: It involves spending time with animals with the goal of improving the mood of a patient. Dogs and cats are most commonly present at pet therapy sessions, but nearly any animal can bring temporary comfort to someone dealing with cancer. Examples of pet therapy include watching fish swim, petting a cat or stroking a dog’s coat. Ask your treatment center if pet therapy is available.

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Energy Therapies

Energy therapies strive to produce a state of balance and well-being within a person. The primary energy therapies used by people facing cancer include music and sound therapy, Therapeutic Touch and Reiki.

Music and Sound Therapy

Music therapy involves listening to, playing, singing and talking about music in the company of a professionally trained music therapist. The therapy can reduce stress, support well-being and may improve healing or help reduce severity of symptoms. Sound energy therapy is similar in that patients listen to music or create it themselves. Specific instruments or tones are used to promote a state of relaxation.

Therapeutic Touch and Reiki

Therapeutic Touch and Reiki are similar healing modalities. Theoretically, they send healing energy from the hands of a healer to a patient’s body. People who receive these therapies report deep states of peace and relaxation during and after the therapy. Some claim lasting effects on the perception of stress.

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The term “homeopathy” comes from the Greek words “homeo” (similar) and “pathos” (suffering). It is a system of medicine that relies on two ideologies: The principles of similars and dilution. It was developed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann more than 200 years ago. Homeopathy has been offered in the United States since the early 19th century. According to a 2007 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 4.8 million Americans used homeopathy in the previous year.

Scientific research does not support homeopathic treatment, and homeopathy is not considered an acceptable medical practice in some parts of the world. In a few European countries, it is a reimbursable medical expense under public health services. In India, homeopathy is considered one of its national systems of medicine.

Learn More About Homeopathy
Quick Fact:

Homeopathic remedies are derived from natural substances that come from plants, minerals or animals. They are generally considered safe and unlikely to cause severe adverse reactions or interfere with conventional drugs.

Integrative Programs at Mesothelioma Cancer Centers

Integrative oncology programs have sprung up throughout the U.S. in recent years.

These programs unite clinically proven complementary therapies with conventional medicine. They treat the whole person, not just the disease.

Some cancer centers that specialize in mesothelioma offer complementary therapies through integrative oncology programs. Integrative health care is increasing in popularity, and these centers are now found throughout the country.

The programs offer a variety of complementary therapies. Some of these include massage, acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, meditation and nutritional counseling.

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Brigham and Women's Hospital

75 Francis Street, Boston, MA 02115

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UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

5115 Centre Ave Pittsburgh, PA 15232

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Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

10833 Le Conte Ave Los Angeles, CA 90024

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What to Know Before Choosing Any CAM Therapy

Natural remedies and therapies are still often considered “folk medicine” by the conventional medical community. No alternative or natural treatment has ever been scientifically proven to cure mesothelioma or improve survival rates. Their use may actually be detrimental to a patient by delaying or avoiding a more accepted form of treatment.

Conventional cancer treatment is scary. Fears of side effects or complications are real concerns that every cancer patient faces. While no modern cancer treatment can cure mesothelioma, certain treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation therapy, can help you live longer. Combining the most effective mesothelioma treatments with complementary therapies unites the best of both worlds.

Before choosing any CAM therapy, mesothelioma patients should consult with their medical practitioner or health care provider. It is important to fully explore the pros and cons of each substance in question. You and your doctor should investigate its origins and manufacturing. You should also understand prescribed dosages and any inherent dangers or side effects. The FDA issues warnings on fake cancer treatments that you can research on their website. If you’re choosing a homeopathic health care provider, similar investigation of the practitioner’s training and background must be made.

Costs and Benefits of CAM

Americans spend more than $34 billion annually on CAM therapies. The benefits tend to outweigh their costs, at least in the minds of these consumers. Theoretically, CAM therapies would seem to offer significant cost savings when compared to conventional treatments. They avoid high technology, offer relatively inexpensive remedies made from natural substances and attempt to harness the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

Mesothelioma Survivors Who Used CAM Therapy

It is heartening to know other mesothelioma patients report success with alternative medicine. Two well-known mesothelioma patients and authors, who lived for years after their initial diagnoses, list natural medicines as part of their alternative treatment regimens. A third patient, who was a 20-year survivor, credited his survival to natural methods only.

Paul Kraus, peritoneal mesothelioma survivor

Paul Kraus

Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor

Paul Kraus, a former asbestos worker from Australia, is still alive a decade after he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma. Kraus chose to forego most traditional cancer therapies, except for a little chemotherapy, choosing instead to employ a host of alternative treatments including taking vitamins, herbs, amino acids, homeopathic supplements and drinking large quantities of carrot, beetroot and green juices. His book is entitled, “Surviving Mesothelioma and Other Cancers: A Patient’s Guide.”

Judy Glezinski, pleural mesothelioma survivor

Judy Glezinkski

Pleural mesothelioma survivor

Judy Glezinski, who lived with pleural mesothelioma for 18 years, underwent both surgery and radiation therapy. She also drank antioxidant rich mangosteen juice made from the tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia and noticed that, for a time, her tumors showed very little growth. Her story is recounted in a book, “Surviving Mesothelioma: Making Your Own Miracle.”

Wayne Neal, peritoneal mesothelioma survivor

Wayne Neal

Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor

Wayne Neal, a lifelong electrician from the Cincinnati area, was forced into an early retirement by health problems that later were diagnosed as peritoneal mesothelioma in 1991. He lived more than two decades with mesothelioma and credited his success to a daily ration of red tart cherries from Michigan rich in antioxidants such as melatonin. He ate 10-12 cherries every night, supplementing his healthy diet of whole grain foods and plenty of vegetables.

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Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at
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10 Cited Article Sources

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Last Modified September 17, 2019

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