Complementary therapies for cancer patients

Complementary therapies are types of non-medical treatment that are often used alongside more common medical treatments. 


  • ​​​​Complementary therapies are non-medical types of treatment 
  • They are performed by qualified therapists 
  • They might not be offered at the hospital where you’re being treated but you may be able to access them in other places 
  • Read on to find out more about different types of complementary therapies 

What are complementary therapies?

There are lots of different types of complementary therapy, including aromatherapy, massage, acupuncture, reflexology and Indian head, neck and shoulder massage and reiki.  

They may help you to relax which can help relieve any symptoms which might be making you uncomfortable.   

You can find out more about each of these treatments on this page.  

These treatments are provided by healthcare professionals who are qualified in their specific areas of complementary therapy.  

Your hospital might not offer complementary therapies but there are other places where you’ll be able to try them. Speak to your care team to find out if there is anywhere local to you.  

You can find out more about complementary therapies on the NHS website

How do complementary therapy sessions work?

The session will usually begin with the therapist talking to you about your medical history and discussing with you what treatment would suit you and your condition. 

The session will take place in a calm, private space. Dignity and confidentiality are maintained at all times. You can end a session at any time if you’re not comfortable, you just need to tell the therapist that’s what you’d like to do, and you don’t need to say why.  

Do I need to prepare for a complementary therapy session?

Don’t eat a big meal in the hour before your appointment starts and if possible, wear something comfortable like jogging bottoms and a T-shirt. 

What are the benefits of complementary therapies?

All of these therapies can help with releasing tension and relieving tight muscles and relaxation which can alleviate stress and provide emotional support. 

What are the different types of complementary therapy?


During a massage the therapist will use their hands in a combination of movements with varying pressure depending on which areas they are working on and what they think is best for your body and circumstances. You can either have a massage lying down or sitting up.   

You can choose to be fully clothed, or if you want the massage therapist to use oils then you’ll need to take some of your clothes of and you’ll be given towels to cover up with.  

Indian head, neck and shoulder massage 

This massage is for your upper back, shoulders, neck, head and face. You’ll usually have this treatment while you’re sitting on a chair. You can choose to be fully clothed or, if the therapist is going to use oils you might need to take off some of your clothes but you’ll be given towels to cover up with.  

The aim is to release tension which can build up, resulting in a stiff neck, aching shoulders, headache or even eyestrain. 


Aromatherapy uses essential oils to help your mind and body relax.  

The therapist will blend the oils together and apply them to your skin. Aromatherapy massage is used to encourage the oils to absorb into the bloodstream. 


For reflexology you will either be lying down or sitting in a specially designed reclining chair. Gentle pressure and massage are applied to specific reflex points on your feet which relate to specific organs and parts of your body. 

Reflexology is used for a number of things including: acute and chronic pain relief and constipation relief. You won’t need to take off any of your clothes other than your shoes and socks. If you’d rather, you can have reflexology on your hands instead of your feet.  

Reiki (pronounced ray-key) 

For reiki you’ll either be lying face down or sitting up on a bed or a chair. You don’t need to take any of your clothes off. The therapist will work their way around your body, pausing and holding over specific points or organs in the body. 

You can also have reiki without someone touching your body if you’d rather. Just let the therapist know what you’re most comfortable with.   

You might have heard or read about acupuncture and wondered if it would be helpful for you. Or maybe a friend, relative or a medical professional has suggested you try it. 

Many people are worried about trying acupuncture because it uses needles. However, acupuncture needles are incredibly thin and it shouldn’t be painful at all. Most people feel calm and relaxed during treatment, and many fall asleep. If you’re worried or nervous about needles then you can try a single needle before your treatment session to see how it feels. 

If you really don’t like needles and don’t want to try it then it’s also possible to get many of the benefits of acupuncture using light touch to the acupuncture points. This is called acupressure.  

Aftercare advice

Follow these tips to look after yourself after these treatments: 

  • Drink at least 8 large glasses of water in the next 24 hours 
  • Allow yourself to relax after the session 
  • Dress warmly 
  • Reduce your tea, coffee and caffeine drinks 
  • Don’t drink alcohol for 12 hours 
  • Don’t do any strenuous physical activity