Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) for Leukemia

Although complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) usually is not considered part of standard leukemia treatment, it may be used in some cases. CAM includes nutrition supplements (e.g., high dose vitamins), herbal medicine, acupuncture, meditation, spiritual healing, and many other therapies.

Alternative medicine, which is used instead of standard treatments, can be used to help treat a number of conditions; however, these therapies alone generally are not used to treat leukemia. They have not been proven to be safe and effective in clinical trials and may be harmful. Delaying leukemia treatment can worsen the prognosis (expected outcome) for patients who have the disease.

Complementary medicine is used in combination with conventional treatments (e.g., chemotherapy) to improve the quality of life for patients, before, during, and after standard leukemia treatment. This type of treatment also is called integrative medicine (IM) or holistic care.

The goal of complementary medicine is to treat the entire person—body, mind, and spirit. Complementary therapies can help relieve pain and anxiety and improve feelings of control and well being in patients who are undergoing treatment for leukemia.

Proper nutrition plays an important role in leukemia treatment. A diet that is high in nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fat) before, during, and after treatment can help many patients feel better and stay stronger. Malnutrition (i.e., under nourishment) can reduce the patient's strength and energy level and interfere with the body's ability to fight infection.

Side effects of chemotherapy, such as nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, and difficulty swallowing, can make it difficult for leukemia patients to follow a healthy diet. Chemotherapy also can reduce appetite, affect taste and smell, and interfere with the body's ability to absorb nutrients. Complementary medicine may help reduce some of the side effects caused by standard leukemia treatments.

Patients who are considering using complementary therapies should first speak with their health care team (e.g., oncologist, hematologist). Some types of complementary treatments can have adverse effects on standard leukemia treatment. For example, high doses of vitamins or certain herbs can interact with chemotherapy. It is necessary for alternative medicine providers (e.g., naturopathic physicians, chiropractors, Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM] practioners) to work together with the rest of the patient's oncology team.

According to the American Cancer Society, leukemia patients should avoid treatments that are promoted through attacks on the medical community, or those that claim the following:

  • This treatment cures leukemia.
  • Standard medical treatment is not needed with this therapy.
  • This treatment or drug is a "secret" that only certain people can administer or provide.
  • Patients must travel to another country for treatment.

Complementary Leukemia Therapies

Complementary therapies (integrative medicine) that may be used in patients who have leukemia include the following:

  • Electromagnetic therapy (e.g., pulsed electromagnetic fields, magnet therapy)
  • Energy therapy (e.g., therapeutic touch, Reiki, Qi gong)
  • Exercise and movement (e.g., dance, yoga T'ai chi)
  • Manipulation (e.g., chiropractic, therapeutic massage, osteopathy, reflexology)
  • Mind-body therapy (e.g., aromatherapy, biofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, imagery, meditation, relaxation therapy)
  • Naturopathic medicine
    • Botanical medicine (phytotherapy; e.g., teas, poultices, tinctures)
    • Clinical nutrition (including special diets and supplements; e.g., macrobiotics, vegetarian, soy, antioxidants)
    • Homeopathy (alternative medical system that uses tiny doses of substances called remedies to stimulate the body's defense mechanism)
    • Hydrotherapy (water therapy)
  • Physical medicine (e.g., massage therapy, physical therapy)
  • Psychological medicine (e.g., counseling, support groups)
  • Spiritual therapies (e.g., intercessory prayer, prayer lines)
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM; e.g., acupuncture, herbal medicine)

In rare cases, CAM also may involve using substances (e.g., medications, hormones, natural products) that are not approved for use in patients who have leukemia (called off-label use). These treatments should only be used under the care of a qualified naturopathic physician and the patient's oncology team. Other complementary therapies that may be used in leukemia patients include antineoplastions therapy (involves using substances in the body called peptides [two or more amino acids that are linked together] to destroy cancer cells) and using supplements (e.g., products from honey bees and mistletoe) to destroy cancer cells and boost the immune system.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 23 Feb 2009

Last Modified: 24 May 2011