Understanding Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a misunderstood therapy. It involves some practices, products and procedures that are not considered conventional cancer treatments because they are not all based on scientific evidence.

However, some cancer patients, including those with mesothelioma, may turn to these treatments. But these should be considered only under their doctors’ advice because CAM may interfere with medications and other conventional treatments.

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 medicine or complementary therapy refers to approaches used in combination with conventional medicine.
  • Alternative medicine refers to approaches used in place of conventional medicine.

Alternative medicine is not commonly used by people with mesothelioma. Most cancer patients avoid alternative medicine and choose to combine proven complementary therapies with conventional medicine.

No alternative treatment has ever been proven to cure mesothelioma or improve survival rates. The use of some alternative treatments may negatively impact a patient by delaying or avoiding a more scientifically proven form of treatment.

What Is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine is a type of CAM that unites conventional medicine with complementary therapies to address the person’s holistic health. When this approach is used in cancer care, it is called integrative oncology.

Holistic therapies used to manage side effects that come with mesothelioma treatment can include:

  • A healthy, balanced diet and exercise to improve quality of life.
  • Medical marijuana, acupuncture and TENS therapy to manage mesothelioma pain and side effects of chemotherapy.
  • Mind-body techniques, such as meditation and yoga, to help cope with mental and emotional stress.

Integrative oncology only uses evidence-based complementary therapies. This means the therapies have been proven safe and successful in cancer research.

Integrative Oncology Programs at Mesothelioma Cancer Centers

Some mesothelioma cancer centers offer complementary therapies through integrative oncology programs.

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

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

Mesothelioma Specialty Centers with Integrative Oncology Programs

Brigham and Women’s Hospital
75 Francis St, Boston, MA 02115
  • Year Built: 1832
  • Number of Beds: 793 beds
  • Number of Physicians: 5
Hillman Cancer Center
5115 Centre Ave Pittsburgh, PA 15224
  • Year Built: 1985
  • Number of Beds: 72,000 patients per year
  • Number of Physicians: 6
UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
10833 Le Conte Ave Los Angeles, CA 90024
  • Year Built: 1960s
  • Number of Beds: 20,000 patient visits each year
  • Number of Physicians: 3

Does Integrative Medicine Improve Mesothelioma Survival?

Integrative oncology doesn’t promise a cure for mesothelioma, nor does it consistently improve survival.

In some cases, complementary therapies may help patients tolerate conventional mesothelioma treatments.

For example, some patients find it hard to finish all cycles of chemotherapy prescribed to them because of side effects. Complementary therapies for nausea and vomiting may help patients better tolerate chemotherapy for longer periods, which could have a positive impact on survival.

However, a 2018 study published in JAMA Oncology by researchers from Yale School of Medicine found that many cancer patients who used complementary therapies were more likely to skip out on at least one aspect of their conventional treatment plan, negatively impacting patient survival in the study.

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Types of Complementary Therapies

Many of the following complementary therapies are used in palliative medicine to control mesothelioma symptoms or alleviate treatment side effects.

Oncology Nutrition

Adequate and balanced nutrition is essential before, during and after cancer treatment.

Oncologists are promoting the importance of a healthy diet in cancer care, especially to accommodate symptoms such as nausea and difficulty swallowing. Some cancer centers even employ registered oncology dietitians to help mesothelioma patients create personalized meal plans and offer guidance on dietary supplements.

Eating well is crucial to feeling physically and mentally better. Good nutrition helps you to get through your treatments in the best way possible and helps the body heal.
Tejal Parekh
Registered & Licensed Dietitian


Cancer doctors recommend gentle exercise to patients because research shows it improves the quality of life, lessens the side effects of cancer treatment and lowers the risk of cancer mortality and recurrence. Studies also show it lessens fatigue, improves physical function and boosts mood.

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicines are made from plants and administered in capsules, powders, teas, creams and tinctures. Examples of herbal medicine include Essiac tea, mistletoe extracts and turmeric.

Some scientific research suggests certain herbs may improve cancer symptoms and reduce the side effects of treatment, while other herbs may interfere with cancer treatment. Plant-based medications are an essential part of traditional Chinese medicine.

A 2020 study published in Molecules reported four plant extracts traditionally used in Thailand on lung cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. The extracts were found to kill lung cancer cells and promoted the effects of chemotherapy.

Medical marijuana is considered an herbal medicine, and research shows it may help relieve pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea in cancer patients. Scientific studies also suggest it may improve appetite during chemotherapy and help cancer patients with insomnia.

Mental Health Therapies

Coping with the mental, emotional and social aspects of a mesothelioma diagnosis is challenging. Many cancer centers now offer counseling and support groups to cancer patients and their families.

  • 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 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 comfort to someone dealing with cancer. Ask your treatment center if pet therapy is available.

Mind-Body Therapies

Specific mind-body therapies have been scientifically studied in cancer patients, including yoga, tai chi, qigong and meditation.


While the following studies report on the benefits of yoga for cancer patients, not every form of yoga is safe for people with cancer to practice. Mesothelioma patients should avoid aggressive or hot styles of yoga, such as Bikram or power yoga, and instead opt for gentler versions of yoga, such as hatha or yin yoga.

  • A 2017 review published in Supportive Care in Cancer studied the effects of yoga among cancer patients actively undergoing treatment. Patients in the study reported that yoga improved sleep, lessened fatigue, reduced distress and eased anxiety and depression.
  • A 2013 study published in the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine reported that practicing yoga improved respiratory function in lung cancer patients by increasing the amount of air they could exhale over a 14-week period.
  • A 2012 study published in the Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine found that yogic breathing techniques helped cancer patients cope with the side effects of chemotherapy in addition to improving sleep, anxiety levels and mental quality of life.

Tai Chi and Qigong

Qigong and tai chi are similar mind-body disciplines that unite flowing, slow-motion movement with breathing and mindfulness. These mind-body practices are gentle and considered safe for people with mesothelioma to practice.

  • A 2014 review published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine looked at 13 controlled trials studying the effects of tai chi or qigong in cancer patients. The review found that tai chi and qigong improved quality of life and mental health, lessened fatigue, reduced inflammation and even improved survival rates in liver cancer patients.
  • A 2015 study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that tai chi and qigong significantly improved fatigue among breast cancer survivors within a short amount of time. The study also reported continued practice of tai chi or qigong improved depression and sleep quality.


At its core, meditation is simply a practice of awareness. Some forms of meditation are spiritually focused, while others focus on mindfulness. Meditation is considered safe for people with mesothelioma to practice, but patients should not participate in any form of meditation that requires fasting from food or water.

  • A 2013 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine investigated the effects of practicing meditation among breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy. It reported that meditation reduced anxiety, lessened fatigue and improved quality of life.
  • A 2001 study published in Supportive Care in Cancer followed 89 cancer patients in a seven-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Participants reported immediate improvements in their sleep quality, fatigue, stress and mood, and maintained these benefits through their six-month, follow-up visit.
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Miscellaneous Types of Complementary Therapies

Several other types of complementary therapies have been scientifically studied in cancer care.

TENS Therapy

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS therapy) uses low-voltage electrical current to relieve pain. Cancer patients can safely use TENS therapy from the comfort of their homes. They do not have to visit a medical center to receive this therapy.

A 2015 study published in Pain Medicine found that TENS therapy significantly relieved cancer-related pain for roughly 70% of participants.

Acupuncture and Acupressure

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese treatment in which thin needles are inserted into the skin to relieve pain and stress built up in the body. Acupressure is similar to acupuncture but uses finger pressure instead of needles to stimulate acupuncture points.

  • The World Health Organization reports that acupuncture can relieve adverse reactions to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • A 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that found auricular (ear) acupuncture significantly reduced the intensity of pain felt by cancer patients over a two-month period.
  • A 2000 study published in Oncology Nursing Forum reported significant anxiety reduction among lung cancer patients who received reflexology, a form of acupressure applied to the feet.

Therapeutic and Lymphatic Massage

Though some perceive a massage as a luxurious way of relaxing, massage therapy can actually be a form of medical treatment. For example, lymph drainage therapy, also known as lymphatic massage, is a technique used after cancer surgery that helps relieve fluid buildup in lymph nodes.

There are dozens of massage categories, but not all are appropriate for cancer patients. Certain conditions may be worsened by deep pressure or physical manipulation commonly used in deep tissue or sports massage. Mesothelioma patients should consult a doctor to help them find a practitioner who specializes in the type of massage best used for their condition and prognosis.

  • According to the American Cancer Society, several studies of massage specifically designed for cancer patients suggest that it can significantly decrease common symptoms of cancer and its treatment, including pain, stress, depression, anxiety and fatigue.
  • A 2007 review published in Current Oncology reported that massage provided approximately 50% reduction in pain, fatigue, stress, anxiety, nausea and depression among cancer patients.

Energy Therapies

Energy therapies include a variety of techniques that intend to heal a person using “energy.” These therapies are based on a belief in a form of energy known as “life force energy,” which hasn’t been proven to exist in scientific studies. It is important to note that while energy therapies may be used as complementary therapy, there is no scientific evidence to support their use in cancer care.

Cancer patients’ primary energy therapies include music and sound therapy, Therapeutic Touch and reiki.

Talk to Your Doctor About Complementary Medicine

It is essential to talk to your mesothelioma doctor before trying any complementary therapy.

  • Research every therapy you are considering so you can understand how it works, and the potential risks and side effects. Bring this research to your doctor. It is important to fully explore the pros and cons of each complementary therapy with your doctor.
  • You should also discuss prescribed dosages and any drug interactions with your oncologist.
  • Investigate every practitioner’s training and background before you schedule an appointment.
  • The FDA issues warnings on fake cancer treatments that you can research on their website. Research every therapy for health warnings, product recalls and potential side effects.

While no cancer treatment can cure mesothelioma, specific treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy, have been proven to help patients live longer. Combining the most effective conventional mesothelioma treatments with complementary therapies and palliative care is safer than an alternative approach.

A 2021 scientific review evaluated the palliative care needs of mesothelioma patients and found they cope with a high degree of uncertainty regarding treatment, financial and legal matters, and how to move forward. It is essential to raise such concerns with your doctor because they may have resources to help you and your family cope.

Dr. Jacques Fontaine and Dr. Virginia Wolf
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Mesothelioma Survivors Who Used CAM

Mesothelioma patients often turn to complementary and alternative medicine to live longer, better lives. Some of the nation’s top mesothelioma cancer centers are now using integrative oncology to help patients recover from surgery and cope with the side effects of chemotherapy. You should consult your doctor before using any complementary therapy or alternative treatment.

Jim Huff
Pleural mesothelioma survivor

When Jim Huff was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2016, he wasn’t interested in undergoing chemotherapy and dealing with the harsh side effects that often come with the conventional treatment. Instead, he turned to medical marijuana, taking a twice-daily dose of CBD oil. For 15 months, his CT scans showed no new tumor growth. When his cancer began to progress, Huff found success with the immunotherapy drug Keytruda (pembrolizumab). “Something is working, a combination or whatever,” he said. “I’m just riding this wave as long as I can.”

Jerry Lampe
Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor

Jerry Lampe was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 1980, when conventional treatments for the rare cancer were limited. Doctors gave him only six to 12 months to live. A friend recommended Lampe check out the Immune Augmentation Therapy Clinic, an experimental cancer-care center in Freeport, Bahamas. He underwent daily injections of a protein mixture made from the blood of healthy donors, and today Lampe might be the country’s longest-living mesothelioma survivor. “There is no way to prove now what it did or didn’t do for me back then,” he said. “[The injections] built up my immune system, and I survived.”

Sissy Hoffman
Pleural mesothelioma survivor

Mesothelioma treatment pioneer Dr. David Sugarbaker performed Sissy Hoffman’s aggressive extrapleural pneumonectomy surgery in 1996. Hoffman continues to thrive today with a nutritious diet and regular workout routines of tai chi and water aerobics. It’s allowed her to take a trip of a lifetime to Italy and even snorkel, despite her having one lung. “Was it easy? No, it was not,” she said. “But I am stronger for it, and I have a deeper appreciation for life.”

Common Questions About Alternative Treatments for Mesothelioma

What is the difference between complementary and alternative mesothelioma treatment?

Complementary treatments supplement standard medical therapies. For example, a mesothelioma diet can reduce side effects and improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Alternative mesothelioma treatments are used instead of conventional medical therapies. While uncommon, a patient may choose to undergo acupuncture as an alternative to anti-cancer medicine.

How is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) used alongside conventional mesothelioma treatments?

Complementary and alternative medicine are options for patients seeking supplemental mesothelioma treatment options that may help alleviate symptoms. CAM used in conjunction with conventional cancer therapy is known as integrative medicine. Integrative medicine options do not offer a cure and are not proven to improve survival.

Do complementary mesothelioma treatments work?

Patients often turn to complementary treatments in an effort toward surviving mesothelioma. In many cases, these patients have lived long and fulfilling lives, and they attribute integrative medicine with helping them recover from surgery or cope with side effects. Patients should always consult with their doctor before using complementary treatments to avoid any negative interactions.