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Living Now: Is complementary or alternative medicine right for you?

From all-natural supplements and special diets to meditation, massage, complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) can take a lot of different forms. Some are generally safe, while others can be dangerous. The risks are especially high when you have a weakened immune system, GVHD, or are taking prescription medicines.

What are complementary and alternative medicines?

While the words “complementary” and “alternative medicine” are usually used together, they’re not exactly the same: 

  • CAM are medical products or treatments that are not part of standard care. Standard care includes the treatments or therapies that your doctors, nurses, physical therapists and others on your health care team provide. 
  • Complementary medicine is used along with standard care. 
  • Alternative medicine is used instead of standard care.

When used with your doctor’s recommended care and advice, some people say their complementary care helps them: 

  • Manage their symptoms 
  • Lower stress 
  • Improve their sense of well-being 

Other people have reported no benefit. 

Is CAM safe for me?

It depends. CAM practices that are generally safe include those that promote relaxation and movement like: 

  • Meditation and prayer 
  • Guided imagery 
  • Massage 
  • Art and music therapy 
  • Yoga 
  • Tai chi 
  • Reiki

Some CAM practices can be dangerous. If you have a weakened immune system, GVHD, or are taking prescription medicines, you need to be especially careful about CAM. Do your research and talk with your doctor before considering: 

  • Acupuncture. When not performed in the right way, it could hurt you and cause infections and bleeding. 
  • Chiropractic care. While often safe, it can be harmful for people whose disease has affected their bones or for those with weakened bones from the transplant. 
  • Special diets. Certain foods or diets could actually be harmful. For example, even something that seems harmless, like grapefruit or grapefruit juice, can cause problems with some medicines. 
  • Special products or equipment, such as suspension exercise devices. 
  • Taking over-the-counter hormones like testosterone or estrogen. 
  • Taking certain vitamins, supplements or herbs. They could make your prescription medicines not work or increase the chance of dangerous side effects. 
  • Using cannabis oil or smoking marijuana
  • Using certain lotions or getting too much light or sun, which could make GVHD of the skin worse.

Questions to ask your doctor

Your doctors know that many people explore CAM, so you can bring it up without fear of being judged. 

Here are some questions to ask your doctor when you’re thinking about using CAM as part of your treatment: 

  • What benefit could I expect? 
  • What are the risks? 
  • Do the known benefits outweigh the risks? 
  • Are there any potential side effects? 
  • Would it interfere with my current treatment?

Resources for you

To learn more about the safety, benefits and risks of CAM, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) website at

You can find information on CAM safety, research and symptom management on the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) website at