Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a group of medical and health care systems, practices, and products, many of which are frequently used but are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.

Definition of treatment

To understand CAM, it is helpful to first understand conventional medicine. Conventional medicine is also called mainstream, western, allopathic or regular medicine and is provided by professionals with an MD or DO (doctor of osteopathy) degree and the nurses and allied health professionals with whom they work.

Although the words complementary and alternative are often used interchangeably, they are really distinct treatment approaches. Complementary medicine is used in addition to conventional medicine; alternative medicine is used in place of standard medical treatments. Many complementary medicine therapies may improve your quality of life; alternative therapies may or may not be effective, and sometimes can be risky if they have not been tested in rigorous clinical trials to prove their effectiveness.

Integrative medicine is a total approach to patient care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit, combining conventional medicine with CAM therapies that have been found safe and effective after being studied in patients. Such integration of treatments can be beneficial when discussed with your health care team.

Types of treatment

Complementary medicine approaches, such as the following, are sometimes used in conjunction with other cancer treatments and may help to control side effects and reduce pain and distress: acupuncture, expressive art/writing/music, biofeedback, controlled breathing, massage therapy, meditation, mindfulness, prayer and spirituality, tai chi, visualization/imagery and yoga.

Treatments such as herbal medicines, nutritional or dietary supplements and homeopathy are sometimes used as complementary or alternative approaches and may or may not have been scientifically proven to work. Some people find that alternative therapies are helpful while others have found them to have no effects or actually cause harm.

There is a vast array of CAM treatments, and surveys have shown that CAM is widely used by cancer patients. However, before you begin any CAM therapy, you should discuss your decision with your doctor and consider the following:

  • Safety and efficacy
  • Cost, in both time and money 
  • Practitioner credentials
  • Interference with standard medical treatment
  • Scientific evidence supporting treatment

UC San Diego Health System expertise

Moores Cancer Center and our Cancer Services offices in Vista and Encinitas offer a number of CAM modalities to complement standard medical treatment:

The Cancer Center is also a leader in clinical trials on the effects of dietary and physical activity interventions in cancer patients and survivors.