Other Traditional Medical Systems
In addition to traditional Chinese medicine, other traditional medical systems that some people practice in their cancer care include Ayurvedic medicine from India, Tibetan medicine and homeopathic medicine.1
Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient medical system originally from India. Ayurvedic medicine’s key concepts:2
- Universal interconnectedness among people, health and the universe
- The body’s constitution (prakriti)
- Life forces and biologic factors (dosha)
Based on these concepts, Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualized treatments comprised of compounds of herbs or proprietary ingredients and lifestyle recommendations for diet, exercise and other aspects.3 Ayurvedic practice can include many types of treatments and therapies, including these:
- Dietary advice and special diets
- Ayurvedic medications
- Herbal medicines
- Yoga, breathing and relaxation techniques
- Bowel cleansing
Ayurveda and Cancer
Reviews of individual Ayurvedic therapies show anticancer properties and preliminary effects in treating cancer, as well as efficacy in treating symptoms.
Very limited evidence of Ayurveda’s effectiveness against cancer exist, although reviews of individual therapies show anticancer properties and preliminary effects, as well as efficacy in treating symptoms, as these examples show:
Ayurvedic products have the potential to be toxic, as some contain lead, mercury and/or arsenic:
The International Society for Ayurveda and Health (ISAH), a professional society of Ayurveda in the United States, makes these recommendations regarding safety of Ayurvedic medicine:17
- Like any other medical system, Ayurvedic therapies have contraindications and potential for adverse effects or side effects. This is of particular concern when therapies are prescribed by unqualified practitioners, are not used correctly, and are abused by self prescription.
- Panchakarma (detoxification) should be performed only by qualified Ayurvedic practitioners who are trained in this subspecialty.
- Consumers bear the responsibility to check the credentials, training, and experience of the practitioners.
- Consumers must communicate with their conventional and Ayurvedic practitioners and practice full disclosure about the therapies they are using.
- Partner with a practitioner who holds a doctoral degree (for example, MD, PhD, or PhysD) and has completed training at a recognized Ayurvedic medical school.
Similarly, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) cautions that some Ayurvedic products and practices may be harmful if used improperly or without the direction of a trained practitioner. They also encourage patients to inform all their healthcare providers about any Ayurvedic products and practices or other complementary and integrative health approaches in use.18
Ayurveda in the United States
According to NAMA: "under the current legal paradigm in the United States, Ayurvedic professionals are not always able to legally practice Ayurveda to the full extent it is practiced in other countries. Each state has laws prohibiting the unlicensed practice of medicine. These laws often restrict the services that Ayurvedic professionals can offer their clients."19
Although no government-defined licensing or credentialing is in place in the US, the National Ayurvedic Medical Associaion (NAMA) has developed regulatory standards recognizing three professional practice categories:
- Health counselor
- Ayurveda practitioner
- Ayurvedic doctor
A scope of practice has been defined for each category, as described on the NAMA website.
Traditional Tibetan medicine methods include balancing the body and mind using herbal pills and spiritual practice. Closely connected with Buddhism, Tibetan medicine seeks to understand the vital life force and its connection with the cosmos, working to minimize or purify karmic influences through meditation and other spiritual practices.20
A 2014 review of Tibetan medicine in three cancer case studies “found TM to be safe and have positive effects on quality of life and disease regression and remission in patients with cancer and blood disorders.”21
Founded in the late 1700s in Germany, homeopathy has been widely practiced throughout Europe. Homeopathy is based on the theory that "like cures like"—a very small dose of a substance that causes a symptom in a healthy person may cure the illness. In theory, a homeopathic dose enhances the body's normal healing and self-regulatory processes.22
Homeopathic remedies are made from plant, mineral and animal substances diluted in water repeatedly until there is little or none of the original substance left. Homeopaths believe that the original substance leaves a molecular blueprint in the water that triggers the body's healing mechanisms. The water is used to make drops, pills or creams.23
Homeopathic Medicine and Cancer
Reviews of homeopathic treatments with cancer patients in 2006, 2009 and 2010 have generally concluded that insufficient evidence is available to support clinical efficacy of homeopathic therapy in cancer care, although the 2009 review found preliminary data in support of the efficacy of topical calendula for prophylaxis of acute dermatitis during radiotherapy and Traumeel S mouthwash in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced stomatitis.24
Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on September 14, 2020.
- Ayurveda and cancer
- Cancer Research UK: Ayurvedic medicine
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Ayurvedic Medicine: In Depth
- California College of Ayurveda:
- National Ayurvedic Medical Association: Find An Ayurveda Professional
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Ayurveda (not specific to cancer)
- Chauhan A, Semwal DK, Mishra SP, Semwal RB. Ayurvedic concept of Shatkriyakala: a traditional knowledge of cancer pathogenesis and therapy. Journal of Integrative Medicine. 2017 Mar;15(2):88-94. (purchase required)
- Dhruva, A. "Ayurveda and yoga for cancer supportive care" in Abrams DI, Weil AT. Integrative Oncology. 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2014.
- Narayana DB. Evidence for Ayurvedic products' efficacy: the devil is in details. Ancient Science of Life. 2016 Apr-Jun;35(4):193-4. (not specific to cancer)
- Abrams DI, Weil AT. Integrative Oncology. 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2014. pp. 552-559.
- Tibetan medicine
- Men-Tsee-Khang: Tibetan Medicine
- Bauer-Wu S, Lhundup T et al. Tibetan medicine for cancer: an overview and review of case studies. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2014 Nov;13(6):502-12.
- Homeopathic medicine and cancer
- Gurdev Parmar and Tina Kaczor: Textbook of Naturopathic Oncology
- University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine: Introduction to Integrative Oncology (2019-2021)
- September 2018 Issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
- University of Arizona: Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine Online Courses
- Donald I. Abrams, MD, and Andrew T. Weil, MD: Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition
- Neil McKinney, BSc, ND: Naturopathic Oncology, 3rd Edition
- Carole O'Toole and Carolyn B. Hendricks: Healing outside the Margins: The Survivor's Guide to Integrative Cancer Care
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: About Herbs, Botanicals and Other Products
- Cancer Research UK
- CAM-Cancer Collaboration: CAM-Cancer
- Michael Lerner: Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer
- National Cancer Institute: Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine