Complementary Therapies to Ease the Way During Cancer Treatment and Recovery

This information describes how complementary therapies can be used to reduce the symptoms and side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

The Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) offers complementary therapies to patients, their families and caregivers, MSK staff, and members of the community. Complementary therapies are used along with your cancer treatment plan. They can help control many symptoms and side effects of cancer and cancer treatment and can help keep you strong during your treatment and recovery.

The complementary therapies that are available are explained below. In addition you can make an appointment for a consultation with a doctor in the Integrative Medicine Service. This appointment is usually covered by insurance. The consultation will help you find therapies that are right for you and your health needs. Your doctor can also answer any questions you may have about herbs and other over-the-counter supplements. To make an appointment for a consultation, please call 646-888-0845.

Types of Complementary Therapies

All of the following therapies are available through the Integrative Medicine Service. However, you can learn how to do some of them on your own as well. If you would like to make an appointment for any of these therapies, please call 646-888-0800.

  • Acupuncture
  • Yoga
  • Music therapy
  • Fitness programs
  • Self-hypnosis
  • Massage therapy
  • Nutrition and herb counseling
  • Meditation and other mind-body relaxation therapies


Acupuncture is a form of treatment in traditional Chinese medicine. It is performed by a licensed acupuncturist, who inserts thin needles into your skin at specific points. Research has shown that acupuncture can reduce some side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

Acupuncture treatments are available at MSK. Inpatients can receive acupuncture at no cost. Outpatients and members of the community can receive acupuncture in private sessions or small group sessions.


Acupressure is an ancient healing art that is based on the traditional Chinese medicine practice of acupuncture. Finger pressure is used to stimulate trigger points on the body (acupoints). Pressing these points can help release muscle tension and promote blood circulation.

You can learn how to perform acupressure on yourself for a variety of problems, including nausea, anxiety, and headache. Please ask your doctor or nurse for the following resources or click on the links to view them online.

Yoga and t’ai chi

Yoga and t’ai chi are exercises that combine gentle body movement with meditation. Doing these exercises regularly can help decrease the risk of falls, improve balance, increase strength, decrease anxiety and fatigue, and improve sleep. The Integrative Medicine Service offers individual and group yoga and t’ai chi classes for patients, family members, and the community.


Getting a massage can help you feel calm and relaxed. It also can reduce back or muscle aches and relieve anxiety and stress.

You can ask a friend or family member to gently massage your neck, shoulders, hands, and feet. Ask them to start with a light touch. They should stay away from broken skin, areas above your tumor site, or any catheters or stomas on your body. The Integrative Medicine Service offers a free 1-hour course called “Touch Therapy for Caregivers” that may be helpful.

The Integrative Medicine Service also offers free massage therapy classes that are available to patients, their family members and caregivers, and the community. You can also make an appointment for a massage with one of our massage therapists, who have experience working with people with cancer.

Meditation and self-hypnosis

Meditation can be helpful in managing depression, anxiety, and stress. It can also reduce fatigue and improve sleep.

You can learn to practice meditation. Start by closing your eyes and imagining yourself in a pleasant, peaceful place. Breathe deeply and slowly. Starting at the tip of your toes, relax each body part one at a time. Doing this will cause your mind to relax as well.

Self-hypnosis is a deep form of meditation. Integrative Medicine Service meditation experts can teach you how to use self-hypnosis, and we also have a self-hypnosis webcast that is available for free on our website ( You can make an appointment with the Integrative Medicine Service to learn how to meditate or to use self-hypnosis.

Music therapy

Listening to music has soothing effects. At the Integrative Medicine Service, music therapy is provided by trained therapists. It can be used to manage pain, anxiety, and depression, and to promote well-being. Music therapy can be provided in the inpatient setting. You can also listen to music in a quiet place with a recording that you find relaxing.

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Effectiveness of Complementary Therapies

In the table below, there is a summary of the therapies offered by the Integrative Medicine Service, along with the symptoms or conditions that they can manage.

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Herbs and Supplements

Some people take herbs and supplements in addition to medications. However, there are important guidelines that you must follow.


  • Stop all herbs 1 to 2 weeks before surgery or as directed by your doctor. Some herbs interact with anesthesia or with blood clotting.
  • Do not give herbs or supplements to children without asking their doctor first
  • Do not take herbs if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, unless your doctor tells you that it is safe
  • Avoid taking herbs if you are getting chemotherapy. Some herbs have serious interactions with chemotherapy medications.
  • Ask your doctor about taking any herbs before you begin radiation therapy. Some herbs may make your skin more sensitive and cause burns.
  • Before you begin any complementary therapies, ask your doctor or nurse how you can use them safely during your cancer treatment.

Hundreds of herbs have been studied and the following ones have been found to be useful for cancer patients:

  • Black cohosh can reduce symptoms of hot flashes in breast cancer patients. It is available as a supplement in capsule form.
  • Ginger can reduce nausea and vomiting. It can be consumed as tea, candy, or a capsule.
  • Ginseng can improve cancer-related fatigue. It can be consumed as tea or a capsule.
  • Honey can help prevent mouth sores from chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Use pasteurized honey to coat the inside of your mouth.
  • Glutamine, which is an amino acid, may help reduce the symptoms of diarrhea, nausea, and neuropathy (nerve damage). It is available in capsule form.
  • Capsaicin comes from hot peppers and can be used as a pain reliever. It is available over-the-counter in cream or gel form.

Some herbs and supplements can have harmful effects. Do not take:

  • Chaparral is an herb that has been promoted as an antioxidant and a pain reliever. However, it has been found to cause liver failure.
  • Comfrey is an herb that has been linked to liver failure.
  • Kava is a plant that has been linked to liver damage.
  • Licorice is a plant that can be used to treat problems in the digestive system. However, it interacts with many prescription medications and can raise blood pressure.
  • St. John’s Wort is an herb that can be used to treat depression. However, it stops the body from using many medications, including chemotherapy. Do not take it if you are taking any prescription medications.
  • Yohimbe is the bark from the yohimbe tree. It is usually used for the treatment of sexual dysfunction. It has been found to cause seizures, kidney failure, and death.

For more information about herbs and botanicals, visit:

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Contact Information

  • To learn about other complementary therapies available at MSK or to make an appointment with the Integrative Medicine Service, please call 646-888-0800 or visit our website:
  • The Bendheim Integrative Medicine Center is located at 1429 First Avenue (at East 74th Street).
  • To find out about inpatient services, please call 646-888-0888.
  • To schedule a consultation with a doctor in Integrative Medicine, please call 646-888-0845.
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