28 May 2014

Many men want to know if complementary therapies can help to treat their prostate cancer. Here our Specialist Nurse Meg answers common questions and separates fact from fiction.

What are complementary therapies?

The term 'complementary therapies' covers a huge variety of approaches from diets to massage and from hypnotherapy to yoga. One reason all these different therapies are grouped together is that they are not usually part of mainstream medicine. However, some are available through hospices, GPs and hospitals.

Some men find that complementary therapies help them with their symptoms and the day-to-day impact of their cancer, or with the emotional side, helping them feel in control. For others, they provide a more complete kind of care, looking after their overall health and wellbeing.

There are a few complementary therapies that have research behind them and some are well regulated. But others have neither. It’s worth remembering that some therapies cause side effects and can even be harmful or stop other treatments from working. We suggest you take a cautious approach and let your health team know if you’re thinking of trying something – just as you would for medical treatments.

What’s the difference between complementary and alternative therapies?

Complementary means as well as. So you might use these therapies alongside the treatment choices you make with your GP, nurse or hospital doctor. Alternative means instead of, in other words, choosing only to use these therapies and not to use mainstream treatments.

Mainstream treatments are carefully tested to show that they work, to check for safety, and to highlight side effects. Many alternative or complementary therapies have not had the same sort of testing. Using them carefully alongside treatments could have benefits. Using them instead runs the risk of having no effective treatment. Arm yourself with the facts before you make decisions.

Why aren’t more complementary therapies available through my doctor?

Doctors look for treatments with evidence to show they work and what the likely side effects will be. Regulations also guide doctors in how someone should use the treatment – how much, how often, with or without other treatments. For many complementary therapies, this information is very limited, or doesn’t exist.

Some people say they benefit from complementary therapies. But others notice no change, or say they’ve had negative effects from what they tried. Without scientific evidence, this range of experiences makes it hard for a doctor to give you advice.

However many doctors recognise there are things men might find helpful to try, and they should be happy to explain any concerns they have about therapies you discuss with them. They might be aware of some side effects to watch out for and they can check if there are any known effects on other treatments you are having.

Is there anything to help me deal with prostate problems?

There is some research that suggests therapies including aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, reflexology and massage could help you deal with the stress of living with prostate problems. They might help you feel more in control and better in your day-to-day life. They can help relieve anxiety and depression. This in turn could help you cope with the effects of illness such as pain and fatigue. If you have fatigue or ongoing pain, you might find it useful to see our fact sheet, Managing pain in advanced prostate cancer, and our Get back on track service.

Hot flushes are a common side effect of hormone therapy. Some men try herbal remedies such as sage tea, to help with this. However, there’s very little scientific evidence that herbal remedies are effective for managing side effects. A small number of studies have suggested that acupuncture might help with hot flushes. You might get acupuncture through the NHS, or a complementary therapy team linked to a hospice.

Different things work for different people, so you might have to try something to know if it’s right for you. Always let your doctor, nurse and other health professionals know if you are thinking of trying something. And tell any complementary therapist involved about your diagnosis and any treatments you are having.

It’s natural, so what’s the harm?

Complementary therapies are sometimes called ‘natural’. But natural doesn’t mean harmless. Herbal remedies, for example, are not usually controlled and licensed in the way mainstream medicines are. They can have side effects, they might not be cheap, it’s hard to know for sure what they contain, and in almost every case there isn’t reliable evidence to say what dose is best or if they work. Be particularly careful about buying herbal remedies over the internet – it can be even harder to know what you’re getting.

How can I get complementary therapies?

There are a number of ways. You could get them through:

• your GP, nurse or hospital doctor

• a pain clinic, if you’ve got lasting pain

• a hospice (they don’t only care for people at the end of life, and some offer therapies as day services)

Maggie’s Centres are a network of drop-in centres offering cancer information and support, including some complementary therapies.

The charity Penny Brohn Cancer Care offers a range of complementary therapies, including residential courses, through their national centre just outside Bristol. 

If you’d prefer to find your own therapist, the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council can help you make sure that they are properly qualified and belong to a professional body www.cnhc.org.uk or call 020 3178 2199. Ask therapists about their knowledge and experience of cancer.

And if you are thinking about using a herbal remedy or supplement, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has advice about using them safely.

With thanks to Georgia Diebel and Dr Catherine Zollman at Penny Brohn Cancer Care for their input.

Find out more about dealing with prostate cancer


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