When most of us think about complementary therapies, such as massage, we think of them for treating a sore back or constant headaches. When we think about treating cancer, we picture surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. How can massage help something as serious as cancer? What effect can diet and supplements have on your health?

It turns out, complementary therapies can help tremendously. Research shows that something as simple as nutrition can play a huge role, not only in reducing the chance someone will get cancer, but also in treating cancer. Biofeedback, meditation and relaxation can reduce the pain and stress of many kinds of cancer and their treatment. And massage can ease the anxiety and discomfort of radiation therapy.

Massage: The healing touch

Eileen Dolan is a massage therapist at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Oregon. She works in the Outpatient Radiation Oncology Department providing chair massages and moral support to patients being treated with radiation for cancer.

"For most patients, massages are more than just a reward they can look forward to after treatment," Dolan says. "They're part of the treatment. Just today, a breast cancer patient stopped by to tell me that massages have been a significant part of her getting through radiation. She said it was one of the reasons she tolerated radiation so well—the massages helped her relax and reduced her anxiety about the treatment."

A patient with lung and bone cancer told Dolan that just seeing the massage chair made her feel better. "She said it really alleviated her pain, even if only for the time she was in the chair. It was relief—one that she otherwise would not be able to get."

Many patients have told Dolan that the climate created by doctors, nurses, technicians and massage therapists all working together created an environment of healing—a giant embrace.

If you have cancer, check with your doctor before using massage. And if you do use massage, be sure to visit a licensed massage therapist who has experience working with cancer patients.

Nutrition: The essential fuel

Good nutrition is vital for people with cancer. Eating well means eating a variety of foods that offer the nutrients you need to stay as healthy as you can while fighting cancer. Good nutrition helps the immune system. Many kinds of food have things in them that help fight cancer, as well.

Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery and radiation are very powerful. Although they target cancer cells in your body, healthy cells can also be damaged. So, you may get unpleasant side effects that discourage you from eating. These can include loss of appetite, weight change, a sore mouth or throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue and depression.

Talk to your doctor or dietitian to create a personalized diet for your needs. In general, though, these guidelines will help you create a healing balance in your body.

  • Eat cancer- and inflammation-fighting fruits and vegetables such as berries, pineapple, spinach, garlic, onions, yams, tomatoes and shitake mushrooms.
  • Drink green and black teas. They're natural sources of antioxidants that help slow cancer growth.
  • Choose healthy omega-3 and monounsaturated fats that are found in olive oil, avocado, nuts, fish and flax seed.
  • Eat whole grains rather than white flour and processed grains.
  • Eat healthy sources of protein, including nuts and seeds, legumes, fish and eggs.
  • Avoid saturated fats found in milk, cheese, butter, red meat, pork and poultry.
  • Keep away from the trans fat found in margarine, hydrogenated oils and fast foods.
  • Avoid processed meats.
  • Eat fewer simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, sweeteners, sugary beverages, baked goods and white bread.

Other alternative therapies

In addition to massage and eating well, you can use many different complementary therapies before, during and after cancer treatment. Some of the most popular include vitamin supplements, acupuncture and naturopathic medicine.

Because these treatments are specific to each patient, you should have your primary doctor and medical oncologist work with a nutritionist, licensed massage therapist and licensed naturopathic physician to decide which therapies are best for you. That way you can move your mind and body toward a place of healing.


Published on April 4, 2008; updated on May 22, 2014.