One take on nontraditional cancer therapies

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

People often fall into two camps regarding the usefulness of nontraditional cancer therapies. Some people are irrationally exuberant in their support of these therapies: “This dandelion soup is going to cure my cancer!” Others are completely dismissive. As is usually the case, a balanced perspective is more sensible than either extreme.

Nontraditional therapies include acupuncture, diet, exercise, massage, yoga, aromatherapy, and many others. Sometimes they’re collectively referred to as alternative or complementary medicine.

The potential benefits and risks of any type of treatment—conventional or alternative—are especially significant with cancer because the stakes are so high. The choices a person makes can literally mean life or death.

Here’s my take on the topic:

  • When people are diagnosed with cancer, they often feel a loss of control. Nearly anything you can do to regain some sense of control is understandable. Pursuing nontraditional treatment is an active process, and I think that’s healthy.
  • Going through cancer is easier if one is part of a supportive community. I often see such communities emerge naturally from yoga classes, prayer circles, and exercise programs.
  • Don’t force nontraditional modalities on others. The goal is to increase the patient’s sense of control, not diminish it.
  • It’s odd that some people think of good nutrition and exercise as alternative approaches to cancer care. They shouldn’t be. Eating a well-balanced diet with less meat and more plant-based food is good for nearly everyone. And there’s compelling evidence that exercise reduces the likelihood of recurrence for some cancers.
  • Some alternative approaches (e.g., massage) make a person feel better. As someone who’s been through cancer treatment, I can say that anything that makes you feel better is a good thing.
  • Our organs and diseases don’t exist in isolation. Maybe yoga won’t directly affect your cancer, but it may affect your emotional well-being, which, in turn, can affect your cardiovascular system.
  • Don’t begin radical lifestyle changes when beginning cancer treatment. There will be times when you’ll need to sit on the couch and eat ice cream. That’s OK. You need that rest and those calories.
  • Tell your doctors about your alternative approaches, even something that seems as benign as taking vitamins. This is especially true during chemotherapy. Antioxidants are usually good for people because they help keep cells alive, but chemotherapy is trying to kill cancer cells. The antioxidants can prevent the chemo from working. Other vitamins can affect how the body heals from surgery

In sum, when thinking about nontraditional cancer modalities, the most important question isn’t “Will this treatment cure my cancer?” Rather, the question to ask is, “Will this treatment contribute to my health and well-being?”


Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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