Complementary Therapies

Complementary therapies work alongside conventional medical treatments and can be used to help improve psychological and emotional wellbeing as well as reducing the impact of treatment-related side effects.

Complementary therapies are used alongside conventional treatment of your blood cancer. They are not used to treat the causes and symptoms of your cancer but aim to improve your emotional and physical wellbeing throughout treatment to make you feel more comfortable, in a better emotional state and more relaxed.

Difference between complementary and alternative therapies

Conventional medical treatments are used by doctors to treat people with cancer. Depending on your blood cancer, this can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, targeted therapies or surgery. These treatments are scientifically tested and proven and can cure cancers, help people to live longer or reduce their symptoms.

Complementary therapies and alternative therapies are very different. It’s important you know this so you can make informed decisions.

Complementary therapies can used alongside conventional medical treatments. They do not claim to cure cancer but can boost a patient’s physical or emotional health. They can also help to alleviate symptoms and side effects.

Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medical treatments. Some claim to treat or cure cancer. But no alternative therapies have been proven to cure cancer and some may be harmful.

Always tell your medical team about any therapies you’re using.

Leukaemia CARE does not endorse the use of alternative therapies.


Types of complementary therapies

There are many different types of complementary therapies and you may want to try several different types to see what works for you as not one therapy works for everyone. If you feel you don’t know what type to start with, your medical team may be able to recommend types of therapies based on your needs, where you are at in your treatment and if you need help with something specific.


Massage involves working on the body with pressure as a way of relaxing an individual’s body to relieve tension, relax the mind and reduce treatment-related side effects in some cases.

Gentle massage using touch and pressure on muscles and soft tissues, with or without the use of oils, can be used to relax and relieve muscle tension. It may help to lift mood and improve sleep patterns.  The beneficial effects of massage can be experienced even when only a small area of the body is massaged, such as the hands, feet or lower legs.  It may also help to address feelings of anxiety, tension and to reduce stress and help with circulation.

To help maximise the effects of a massage and keep it remaining beneficial and pain free it is recommended that you:

  • Only have massages using light pressure as heavy massage treatments such as Swedish massage can cause pain.
  • Don’t have massages in areas that have received focused treatment such as targeted radiotherapy.
  • Limit your massages to short time periods.
  • Be careful if you are experiencing skin-related side effects such as sensitive skin as some oils used.
  • Avoid massage if your cancer affects your lymph nodes or lymphatic system.

Always talk to your doctor or clinical nurse specialist before using any type of massage therapy. It may be that an adapted treatment offered within a cancer care centre would be appropriate for you. It is important to make sure that your massage therapist is fully qualified and insured.


Through the use of aromatic plant oils, including essential oils, made from various plants and flowers, aromatherapy is used to to enhance wellbeing and encourage relaxation.

Aromatherapy uses blends of essential oils extracted from plants such as lavender, jasmine and ylang ylang. The theory behind aromatherapy is that each essential oil has its own properties that may provide health benefits e.g. lavender can help with sleeping problems.

Usually, essential oils massaged into the body but they can also be added to warm bath or used in an oil burner

Essential oils may help in reducing stress and therefore help with the ability to cope and promote a sense of wellbeing. It can also help to reduce anxiety and pain levels for a period of time.

If you have cancer you should not use any aromatherapy without advice from a qualified aromatherapist.


Originating in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is the belief of a system of energy channels in the body, helping to provide a feeling of wellness and helping to relieve several treatment-related side effects.

Acupuncture is a treatment in which fine needles are inserted at certain sites in the body. The acupuncture needles stimulate nerves under the skin and in muscle tissue, causing the body to produce natural chemicals, such as endorphins, which are hormones that give you a feeling of wellbeing.

Some people believe acupuncture helps with some side effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea and sickness, when given alongside conventional anti-sickness drugs. Others believe acupuncture may also be helpful in the treatment of pain.

There is no evidence to show that acupuncture can cure cancer. But research suggests that it is helpful in relieving some symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment. The main areas of research into acupuncture for cancer are chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting, fatigue and pain.

If you have a low platelet or white blood cell count, acupuncture may not be recommended as you could have a greater risk of bleeding and infection.

Before starting acupuncture, always check with your doctor and make sure your acupuncture practitioner knows your full medical and drug history – especially if anything has changed.


Reflexology is a complementary therapy that aims to relieve pain in one part of the body by applying pressure to reflex areas on the hands and feet.

Reflexology is a therapy based on the belief that there are areas in the feet and hands which correspond to the organs and different parts of the body.

There is no scientific evidence to support the use of reflexology as a treatment or cure for cancer. But the theory behind the therapy is that having your feet pressed and massaged in a certain way stimulates the corresponding organs in your body, which in turn releases your body’s natural healing powers. It is thought that reflexology may help to alleviate symptoms and side effects of treatment.

Reflexology is a specialised form of hand or foot massage where gentle pressure is applied to specific point, triggering the natural healing of the corresponding body part

People with low platelet counts should not use reflexology due to the risks of bruising or bleeding more easily

Before starting reflexology, always check with your doctor and make sure your reflexologist is properly trained and qualified. Most reputable reflexologists are registered with the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) or one of the organisations that are part of the Reflexology Forum.

Energy Therapies

These type of therapies aim to improve your physical and emotional health. By little or no physical contact it is believed to affect the ‘energy’ around your body to improve your wellbeing.

Energy therapies include Reiki, therapeutic touch and spiritual healing. Reiki is one of the most well-known energy therapies. Reiki is Japanese for ‘universal life energy’, a term used to describe a natural system to help bring about an improved sense of wellbeing.

With all of the energy therapies you can either sit or lie down, fully clothed, while the therapist places their hands above, or on, certain parts of the body. You may start to feel very relaxed during the treatment and this may last for some time after treatment.

There is no medical evidence that energy-based therapies will treat symptoms, but you may still find them relaxing and calming.

Most practitioners belong to a reputable professional association for Reiki and should be registered with the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) as a Reiki practitioner.


Hypnotherapy is a mind-body therapy which aims to encourage positive emotions and to put you in a deep state of relaxation to encourage feelings of calmness.

Hypnosis can help some people reach a deep state of relaxation. During hypnosis you’ll remain conscious and aware of your surroundings. It’s believed by some to make your mind more open to accept new ways of thinking, acting and feeling and can help some people to feel more comfortable and in control of their situation.

People with cancer most often use hypnotherapy for sickness or pain. There is some evidence that hypnotherapy helps with these symptoms. It can also help with depression, anxiety and stress.

There is not much evidence to support the success of hypnotherapy but it can be used alongside conventional treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

If you want to start hypnotherapy, you should make sure you choose a qualified hypnotherapist with a reputable healthcare background such as the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) and are regulated by the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).


Yoga is a physical therapy that prompts relaxation, involving positioning your body in different poses, breathing exercises and meditation.

Yoga is an ancient form of exercise that focuses on strength, flexibility and breathing to boost physical and mental wellbeing. The main components of yoga are postures (a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility) and breathing. Hatha and restorative yoga focus on relaxation and are suitable for those with a cancer diagnosis.

As with many complementary therapies, one of the main reasons that people with cancer take part in yoga is because it makes them feel good. Some say it helps calm their mind so that they can cope better with their cancer and its treatment. Others say that it helps to reduce symptoms and side effects such as pain, tiredness, sleep problems and depression.

Many yoga teachers are registered with one of the organisations listed below, who can give information and details of local yoga teachers.