Alternative medicine versus complementary medicine

A friend of mine posted this Guardian Article “What do doctors say to ‘alternative therapists’ when a patient dies? Nothing. We never talk“. Let me begin by saying that I found the article to use an extreme example, which makes me think the author is trying to be sensationalist rather than talk about the issue at hand. The problem with the article is that there IS a huge dialogue going on – they just don’t call it alternative therapy, rather they call it complementary therapy and often it is exactly he same thing!

Cancer research UK provides a good definition for the difference between complementary medicine and alternative medicine (see

A complementary therapy means you can use it alongside your conventional medical treatment. It may help you to feel better and cope better with your cancer and treatment. It is important to discuss with your doctor any complementary therapy that you are thinking of using.

An alternative therapy is generally used instead of conventional medical treatment. All conventional cancer treatments have to go through rigorous testing by law in order to prove that they work. Most alternative therapies have not been through such testing and there is no scientific evidence that they work. Some types of alternative therapy may not be completely safe and could cause harmful side effects.

However, what this doesn’t say is that often the complementary therapy an an alternative therapy can be the same thing – it is just a matter of context. For example, acupuncture is often used as a complementary therapy to help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. If someone decided to do acupuncture instead of chemotherapy, then it would be considered an alternative therapy. The same treatment could be considered either a good thing (complementary) or a bad thing (alternative).

Diets are perhaps some of the worst offenders in this realm. Again, eating a healthy diet (and a visit to the dietician) is considered complementary therapy. There are many diets out there that may be recommended by various dietitians. This quickly becomes a slippery slope – dietary research is complex and it is next to impossible to truly know how a specific diet will effect a specific person (if you want to read a good book about the issues with dietary research, check out Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes).

My point is, what makes something complementary versus alternative is context. If you are doing it in conjunction with your medical team, then it is complementary, if you are doing it on your own (instead or inspire of) your medical team, then it is alternative.

I should point out that there are quack jobs out there that do prey on the vulnerability of patients with cancer. There should be some way to help better educate people about what is non-harmful complementary therapy and what is harmful.

I can see the draw to some of the additional therapies. During my acute treatment (chemo and surgery), I didn’t have the time for complementary therapies. I did Reiki when I had the chance during AC chemo, but once I could not drive, it was no longer feasible for me to seek out the treatments. Now that I’ve graduated to 6-months follow ups with my oncologist, I find myself drawn to more alternative/complementary therapies. In part, this is because I feel the need for something to fill the void that has been caused by my medical team disengaging in my recovery. I feel that I need to be actively doing something to help my body recover from treatment. I know that for the most part, what will heal my wounds is time – For example, the only thing that will cure the neuropathy in my feet is time (assuming it does get better) – up to two years or maybe even three. However, I don’t feel like I should just sit around and wait for it to get better. I seek out alternative/complementary treatments – physiotherapy, massage, acupuncture. In part, this is because my oncologist just doesn’t seem to care anymore or at least that is how I’m left feeling in this moment – it is not an uncommon thing to feel abandoned by your care team after acute treatment as they are no longer giving you the attention they did during acute treatment (knowing this logically doesn’t help the emotional brain deal with it) – they have moved on to focus on other people who are in acute treatment – for the most part, the only thing that will help recovery at this point is time – and so, for someone who wants to feel like they are doing something to help with recovery, I seek out alternative therapies that provide some sense of doing something … they give me hope and encouragement when I need it.

What I’d like to see is less news that intends to sensationalize alternative treatments, and more information about complementary therapies that can help fill the void when your medical team has moved on to the next patient.


  • Becky


  • I like the angle you’re taking here, although it seems your approach is complementary in the sense that you hadn’t given up on traditional medicine, right? I think your point about context is an important one.
    What I have always wondered about (coming from a family of doctors, but always wondering if there is something medical science misses) is if there is some ways for alternative medicine to have its own standards of rigor rather than comply to those of traditiona medicine which might not work for it. Maybe these exist but medical science ignores them

  • I think the bigger challenge is that even though standards of rigor exist for some alternative therapies, it is not known to patients – in that patients have little or no way of knowing the difference between someone who has a valid alternative education and someone who is just preying on people in a vulnerable state – and the medical system of course has its own “gold standard” which isn’t always the most effective way to determine a treatment.

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