What is cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is a group of diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. If the spread is not controlled, it can result in death. Although cancer is often referred to as a single condition, it actually consists of more than 100 different diseases.

Cancer can arise in many sites and behave differently depending on its organ of origin. Breast cancer, for example, has different characteristics than lung cancer. It is important to understand that cancer originating in one body organ takes its characteristics with it even if it spreads to another part of the body. For example, metastatic breast cancer in the lungs continues to behave like breast cancer when viewed under a microscope, and it continues to look like a cancer that originated in the breast.

Cancer types can be grouped into broader categories:

  • Carcinoma - cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs.
  • Sarcoma - cancer that begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue.
  • Leukemia - cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue, such as bone marrow, and produces large numbers of abnormal blood cells that enter the bloodstream.
  • Lymphoma and myeloma - cancers that begin in the cells of the immune system.
  • Central nervous system cancers - cancers that begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.

What are the conventional treatments for cancer?

Cancer treatment can take many different forms, and it is always tailored to the individual patient. Treatment decisions depend on:

  • The type and location of cancer
  • The extent to which the cancer has already spread
  • The patient's age, sex, and general health status
  • The patient's personal treatment preferences

The conventional cancer treatment is to remove all or as much of the tumor as possible and prevent the recurrence or spread of the primary tumor.

The major types of treatment are listed below.

  • Surgery involves the removal of a visible tumor and is the most frequently used cancer treatment. It is most effective when a cancer is small and confined to one area of the body.
  • Radiation kills tumor cells. Radiation is used alone in cases where a tumor is unsuitable for surgery. More often, it is used in conjunction with surgery and chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It destroys the hard-to-detect cancer cells that have spread and are circulating in the body. Chemotherapeutic drugs can be taken either orally or intravenously, and may be given alone or in conjunction with surgery, radiation, or both.
  • Immunotherapy uses the body's own immune system to destroy cancer cells. This form of treatment is being intensively studied in clinical trials and is not yet widely available to most cancer patients.
  • Hormone therapy is standard treatment for some types of cancers that are hormone-dependent and grow faster in the presence of particular hormones. These include cancer of the prostate, breast, and uterus. Hormone therapy involves blocking the production or action of these hormones. As a result, the growth of the tumor slows down and survival may be extended for several months or years.
  • Bone marrow transplantation is the removal of marrow from one person and the transplant of the blood-forming cells either to the same person or to someone else. Bone marrow transplantation, while not a therapy in itself, is often used to rescue a patient, by allowing those with cancer to undergo very aggressive therapy.

What lifestyle changes are recommended for cancer?

Physical activity of a mild to moderate nature has been shown to improve quality of life and decrease fatigue in cancer patients. Since exercise has been shown to improve mood, reduce insomnia, and elevate appetite, it is assumed these benefits would also be useful for those same complaints in oncology patients.

Nutrition research—including that about individual foods, phytochemicals, multivitamin supplements, and antioxidants—has had conflicting results. While there seems to be agreement that diet plays some role in the development of cancer, clinical recommendations for prevention are still unclear, and research data is not persuasive. See Research on Diet and Cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends a simple, conservative, "healthy" diet, with a plant emphasis:

  • Eat five or more servings of a variety of vegetables and fruits every day
  • Choose whole grains over processed (refined) grains
  • Limit intake of processed and red meats
  • Eat only enough calories to maintain a healthy weight

While antioxidants have been associated with improved health, it is important to avoid high-dose antioxidant supplements during active radiation therapy because they might prevent radiation from effectively killing the cancer cells.

What are some integrative therapies to consider for cancer?

There are many cancer types, all with varying extents of disease. Some cancers have no symptoms and can be found on routine screening exams. Others might be diagnosed when there is extensive disease, with the individual having many symptoms of illness. This section focuses on areas of cancer care for which integrative healing practices are most often considered: stimulating the immune system, improving life balance, and managing side effects of the cancer or cancer treatments.

Conventional physicians have begun an organized evaluation and application of integrative practices for cancer care called Integrative Oncology, which is "a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to cancer care that addresses all participants at all levels of their being and experience." It is important for patients to be aware of this option, because physicians practicing in this field might be better able to help them to:

  • Improve their tolerance of antineoplastic therapy
  • Optimize control of their primary symptoms
  • Generally improve their quality of life
  • Expand options for end-of-life care

Learn more here: A Bit on Categories Beyond the Scope of this Section.

Mind/Body Practices

Mind/body therapies may have whole body impacts that are meaningful but difficult to measure scientifically. These therapies provide an internal sense of mastery, enable greater flexibility in emotions and beliefs, and empower individuals to make comprehensive lifestyle changes that were previously unobtainable.

Research has supported their use in many different subsets of cancer patients.

  • Yoga has been shown to improve quality of life and sleep, while also decreasing anxiety.
  • Hypnosis decreases anxiety.
  • Meditation decreases anxiety, improves pain tolerance, and improves sleep.
  • Support groups improve quality of life and may impact actual longevity.

Manual Therapies

Many people find that massage brings a temporary feeling of wellbeing and relaxation.

Massage is also used to relieve pain and stiffness, increase mobility, rehabilitate injured muscles, and reduce the pain of headaches and backaches. Massage therapy has shown positive impacts in more than 5,000 research studies.

In cancer patients, massage therapy and manual lymphatic drainage improve lymphedema; decrease stress, anxiety, depression, pain, and fatigue; and improve sleep.

Energy Medicine

This category includes practices such as healing touch, therapeutic touch, Reiki, acupressure, Qi Gong, and others. These practices are delivered through the hands, with intent to raise the amount of universal life energy (qi or ch'i) and balance the energy flow within the body by unblocking or removing disturbances within the body's energy paths.

Proponents claim that the blockage or disturbance of the body's energy paths is associated with illness, weakness, and pain. Energy medicine practitioners focus on realigning and strengthening the flow of energy in order to decrease pain, ease muscle tension, speed healing, improve sleep, and generally enhance the body's natural ability to heal itself.

Some research on cancer patients has found improved fatigue and quality of life through these techniques.


Acupuncture, as used within the system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, may have multiple impacts on both the cancer itself and on symptom management in ways that is not well understood.

There is ample evidence indicating that acupuncture can help with the nausea associated with chemotherapy and post-operatively from anesthesia.

How to use integrative therapies in your cancer care

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is, for most individuals and their families, a scary and traumatic experience. It is important to take time to think clearly and work to understand the diagnosis, treatment, and the short- and long-term implications of the condition. It is critical, no matter what the cancer or its extent, that the patient find hope and support.

The timing on integrating healing practices into cancer care will vary.

  • For some, immediate conventional treatment, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, are generally the highest priority. Complementary/integrative options might not even be considered until after completion of those interventions.
  • For others, the interest in integrative therapies arises as they move through conventional care, perhaps motivated by side effects or challenges to their quality of life.
  • For yet others, immediately considering an integrative approach will be a primary concern. As with all integration, communication is critical for avoiding any negative interactions, or interference, between treatments.

Finding services

Speak to your own oncologist about services available in the local area, but also talk to other cancer patients about local resources. National centers can also sometimes help individuals find local resources. Nationally, integrative oncology is a growing field, and you may be able to find a consultant on this.