All About Integrative Oncology

Author: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C, FAOSW
Last Reviewed: June 28, 2022

What is integrative oncology?

Integrative oncology, or integrative medicine, is the use of complementary, or integrative, therapies along with conventional medicine. These therapies work together with standard treatment methods (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation) to treat the patient's body, mind, and spirit. Integrative therapies can help with the goals of treatment, treatment of side effects, distress relief, and may help with treatment results and adherence.

Defining the Terms

Conventional cancer therapies: cancer treatments that are widely used and have been proven useful in clinical research trials. These are often called standard of care and may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and/or hormonal therapy.

Complementary and alternative medicines and practices (CAM): are not thought of as standard treatments, though many can be useful to cancer patients. Often, these therapies are not routinely taught in medical schools and your healthcare team may not know the potential benefits.

CAM therapies fall into two categories: complementary and alternative.

  • Complementary medicines: cancer therapies used along with conventional medical treatments. For example, acupuncture and guided imagery may be used to ease nausea caused by chemotherapy.
  • Alternative medicine: therapies that are used instead of conventional medical therapies. For example, getting vitamin infusions to treat cancer, instead of a standard therapy prescribed by an oncologist.

Integrative Oncology: is an approach to cancer care that uses complementary therapies to support the whole patient: mind, body, and spirit.Many cancer centers have integrative medicine programs that offer complementary therapies on-site.

What modalities are thought of as integrative therapies?

  • Mind-body methods - mindfulness, biofeedback, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mediation, relaxation, guided imagery, hypnosis, yoga, music therapy, creative/expressive therapies, and spirituality.
  • Biologically based practices - vitamins, herbs, foods, special diets.
  • Body-based practices - massage, chiropractic interventions, reflexology.
  • Energy medicine - Reiki, Tai chi, Jin Shin Jyutsu, therapeutic touch.
  • Other medical delivery systems - Chinese medicine such as acupuncture, homeopathy, and naturopathy.

Safety Considerations

Many integrative therapies are helpful in easing side effects and supporting your well-being. Unfortunately, for many of these therapies, we are not certain what risks, if any, they pose. It is important to talk about any therapies you are using or thinking about using with your providers. Integrative therapies that are taken by mouth or given through an IV may interfere with standard cancer treatments (either negating or intensifying its action) or cause certain blood test results to be wrong. Also, the treatments may have side effects of their own. For example, they may worsen other medical issues a patient has, such as high blood pressure.

Vitamins, herbal therapies, and supplements do not need FDA approval. They are not subject to the same manufacturing and purity standards as regulated pharmaceuticals. This has led to batches containing impurities, or not containing what the label states they contain. One way to safeguard against this is to buy from reputable manufacturers or those that are verified by USP (United States Pharmacopeial Convention). USP is a non-profit organization that tests vitamins and supplements for purity and assures that the products contain what the label says they contain. Verified vitamins and supplements will have a "USP Verified" seal on the packaging.

There can also be safety concerns for some mind-body and body-based practices, depending on your situation. For example, deep tissue massage is typically not recommended for areas affected by lymphedema and acupuncture could increase infection risk in patients with a low white blood cell count. These examples highlight why it is so important to discuss ALL integrative oncology therapies with your providers.

Talking to Your Health Care Team about Integrative Oncology Therapies

The key to integrating these therapies into your cancer care is to talk about it with your healthcare team. Although many integrative therapies can be helpful, others have been proven to not be helpful or can interact with your standard cancer treatments or other medications. In recent years, oncology providers have become more aware of promising integrative therapies and are usually willing to support their patients in using these therapies safely. Your team can help guide you towards therapies that may be beneficial to your care needs based on your symptoms, coping, and stress reduction needs. Your healthcare team can refer you to integrative practitioners at your treatment center, or in your area. It is important that all of your care providers know what therapies you are using and work together to provide you with the best treatment. This includes your integrative medicine providers. An oncology social worker or navigator can also help you with coordinating care and encouraging communication amongst providers.

Are integrative treatments covered by my insurance?

These therapies are typically not often covered by insurance, but some plans do cover therapeutic massage, acupuncture, psychological treatment methods, and nutrition counseling. Call your insurance company to find out about these benefits. Many cancer centers include integrative medicine as part of their overall oncology service offerings, often at no extra charge. The local affiliate of the Cancer Support Community may also offer free integrative oncology services. The American Cancer Society maintains a database of supportive care services, including integrative oncology services. In addition, your social worker may be able to suggest a local resource for integrative therapies.

Resources & Further Reading

Society of Integrative Oncology

Guidelines from the Society of Integrative Oncology

Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Talking About Complementary and Alternative Medicine With Health Care Providers: A workbook and tips from the OCCAM at the NCI.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

USP (United States Pharmacopeial Convention)

Resources for More Information: Integrative, complementary, and alternative medicine