Understanding Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Lung Cancer


If you have lung cancer, you may be interested in trying complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) to ease pain, anxiety, and other side effects. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s the Difference?

Complementary medicine is done alongside standard lung cancer treatments such as:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Supportive or palliative care

Examples include:

  • Yoga
  • Acupuncture
  • Meditation
  • Massage
  • Hypnosis
  • Art and music therapy

Many health care providers now use the term integrative medicine, which combines standard medical therapies with complementary practices. 

Alternative medicine is anything done in place of standard treatment. Most doctors aren’t fans of this kind of therapy because it’s not backed by scientific evidence. You could end up in worse condition.

Which Complementary Therapy Is Best?

It depends on the person. You might find yoga really helps with anxiety, while someone else may prefer painting to help them relax. But it’s important to talk with your doctor before trying anything new. They’ll tell you what’s OK and what could impact treatment. Here are some of the most common complementary therapies.

Massage. Studies show it can ease pain and stress related to cancer treatment. Dos and don’ts for massage therapy include:

  • Do work with a licensed massage therapist.
  • Don’t get a massage if your blood counts are low.
  • Don’t massage surgical scars, radiation treatment sites, or your tumor site.

Reflexology. This is when pressure is put on certain parts of the feet or hands. The belief is that these areas are connected to specific organs and can ease pain and stress.

“Most people love a good foot rub, and the foot might be more acceptable based on someone’s history, where other parts of the body may not be,” says Donna Murphy, LMSW, director of the Patient and Family Support Services Program at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center.

Aromatherapy. This uses oils like lavender or lemon to help with relaxation or boost energy levels. They might be rubbed onto your skin during a massage. You can also add them to a diffuser or your bath water. But because the hormone estrogen may play a role in certain types of lung cancer, lavender and tea tree oils should be avoided in large amounts. Research suggests chemicals in these oils impact hormones.  

Music, art, and dance therapy. These can help lift your mood and encourage creative self-expression.

Relaxation techniques. Examples include meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. These can help you focus on the here and now rather than worrying about what’s to come. Yoga is one of the more popular types. You may think of yoga as a bunch of bending and twisting, but there are easier forms you can try. Skip poses you find painful and ask your teacher for modified versions. Better yet, find a yoga instructor trained to work with people who have health issues. 

“Even if someone with lung cancer doesn’t have current symptoms such as shortness of breath or difficulty with breathing, they already are picturing it and imagining it as an eventuality,” says Claire Casselman, LMSW, a senior social worker and complementary therapies clinician at University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center. “Self-regulation techniques such as guided imagery, which is a form of meditation and mindfulness, can be helpful for pain and for helping to enhance sleep, increase appetite, and anxiety management.”

Hypnosis. Studies have found it useful in tackling nausea, vomiting, pain, stress, and anxiety in cancer patients. Under hypnosis, a therapist guides you to a state of deep concentration, where you can focus on goals, sensations, and memories that may be helpful.

Ask your health care team to recommend a certified hypnology therapist, and be sure to let them know if you have a history of mental illness. That can help them recommend the best therapist for you.

Acupuncture. A growing body of evidence shows this traditional Chinese therapy may help with some kinds of cancer pain and nausea from chemotherapy. Acupuncture is done by inserting slender needles in specific parts of the body to promote healing.

“When you stimulate an area, whether it be with a needle or with pressure, you send messages up to the brain and the brain remodels itself, changing perceptions of symptoms like pain and fatigue,” says Suzanna Zick, ND, MPH, director of the integrative medicine program at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center.

Because certain lung cancer treatments can weaken your immune system, make sure your practitioner is licensed and uses sterile needles. Don’t get acupuncture if your platelet count is low.

Nutrition. Nutrition plays a role in warding off certain types of cancer, including lung cancer. Experts recommend eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes. Cut back on the simple carbs and added sugars.  

“We’re not talking about anything radical here, but we know from really large studies, including lung cancer patients, that this significantly reduces the risk of both deaths and recurrence,” Zick says.  

The effectiveness of herbs and supplements doesn’t have the same amount of evidence, but ginger shows some promise in easing chemotherapy-related nausea in combination with anti-nausea medicine.

Don’t forget to include exercise in your complementary therapy plan. The benefits of regular activity are well known and include better mood and sleep. Ask your doctor what’s safe for you.