What Is the Difference Between Complementary and Alternative Therapies?

Question: What is the difference between complementary and alternative therapies?

Answer: There's a profound difference between alternative and complementary medicine. Alternatives, particularly in cancer medicine, are especially dangerous because they are usually offered as literal alternatives to mainstream care. These are products and activities and regimens that are promoted to be used instead of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. They are, by definition, unproved. If they were proved, they would not be alternative; we'd all be using them. They generally are biologically invasive, very expensive, and, and harmful -- in and of themselves but also because they keep patients from getting needed care in, in a timely fashion.

Complementary remedies are entirely different. They are not promoted as cancer cures. They are used to enhance quality of life, to reduce pain, to reduce other symptoms, to make patients generally feel better, stronger, and calmer. And most importantly they are used in an adjunctive fashion along with, not instead of, mainstream therapy.

Barrie Cassileth, Ph.D., Chief, Integrative Medicine Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer CenterPlay

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