When Lynda McGilvray's breast cancer recurred, she needed something in addition to conventional treatment - and was amazed to discover through her cancer network that alternative therapies were available on the NHS. She had the good luck to find the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital.

'I'd already been to Bristol Cancer Help Centre, and found it enormously beneficial, but I needed somewhere nearer home,' she says. 'All I knew about homoeopathic medicine was that it treated 'like with like' and was a very old type of medicine. But I am convinced that the unconventional treatments, plus the loving support of the staff, have aided my recovery.'

Ms McGilvray, now 43, had breast cancer diagnosed when she was 30, and it recurred seven years later. Although cancer treatment had been available at the Royal London Homoeopathic for many years, at that time it was a less comprehensive service than it is now. But this month the hospital has introduced a full package of complementary treatments for NHS cancer patients. The programme includes iscador (mistletoe) therapy, therapeutic massage, shiatsu (a Japanese massage technique that also uses acupressure), relaxation training and visualisation techniques. All are available for in- patients and out-patients.

The package has been put together by Dr Anne Clover, a conventionally trained doctor who has a homoeopathic qualification. She is working with Caroline Stevenson, a Macmillan Nurse (trained in cancer care) who specialises in complementary therapies.

'Homoeopathic remedies to augment conventional cancer treatment have been available in this hospital for 30 years, but on a very small scale. We decided this January to implement a full complementary package because of ever-increasing demand from patients,' Dr Clover says.

Since the Bristol centre was set up in 1980, there has been a growing interest in complementary therapies for cancer patients. This includes awareness that cancer sufferers need help with maintaining their quality of life and well-being. Many also need help to cope with the feelings of anxiety, terror and isolation that a cancer diagnosis often brings.

It is for these reasons that many turn to alternative medicine, as few orthodox cancer specialists take on these psychological issues. Treatments such as aromatherapy, massage, dietary guidance, acupuncture and other unorthodox therapies have mostly been available only at expensive private clinics. But a major problem for many cancer patients is lack of money, as they often have to give up their jobs or take long leaves of absence.

Dr Clover says: 'When I trained as an orthodox doctor, we all had tunnel vision, and it was difficult to expand that after training. I'm not denying the insights and value that come with conventional medicine, but I now see that it will never have all the answers, and that there will always be a place for complementary therapies.'

She stresses that she works in 'close conjunction' with the orthodox cancer teams. 'We're aiming to maximise the efficacy of conventional therapy. Cancer remains a very emotive word, and many people still see it as a

death sentence hanging over them.

'While conventional therapies help the end product, we aim to help the patient as a whole person. We give a very detailed consultation and look at each person individually. We select homoeopathic remedies appropriate to the patient's mood and overall reaction.'

The overwhelming majority of Dr Clover's patients are women with breast cancer. A package of remedies has been devised, aimed at helping them with their feelings, with the physical reactions they may be experiencing after chemotherapy, and with any bone or joint pains. 'Although many patients may be having similar treatments, they will all experience very individual reactions,' she says.

'We have never claimed to cure cancer with complementary treatments. Our main aim is to help patients to increase their sense of well- being and strengthen the immune system so that they have the best chance of fighting the disease.'

One of the most controversial aspects of the package is iscador therapy, which uses an extract of mistletoe that is injected by the patient. Iscador does not form part of any conventional cancer treatment, and is believed to stimulate the immune system. GPs can prescribe iscador, although few in Britain do.

The homoeopathic rationale for iscador is based on the fact that mistletoe, like cancer, is a parasite, and that one can cancel the other out.

Iscador is widely used in alternative cancer clinics, and was introduced to this country by the Bristol centre. Orthodox oncologists - cancer specialists - laugh at it, but most agree that it seems to do no harm. 'Detailed studies from abroad have shown that patients feel much better on iscador. The orthodox world is still questioning it, but the follow-up studies are impressive,' she says Dr Clover.

Acupuncture is used to relieve the frequently chronic stress and tension that cancer patients experience, and is also good for the pain itself. 'Patients choose which parts of the package they want. Some may just want hand or foot massage, and this needs to be very carefully applied. Our nurses have been trained in aromatherapy, and this is very good for relaxation. A relaxed body aids its own healing.

'None of the homoeopathic remedies we use interacts adversely with conventional cancer treatment, they augment its efficacy while helping to minimise adverse side effects.

'We're finding that GPs are increasingly interested in what we are offering, as they are seeing for themselves how their patients benefit. Some patients do want to come off their orthodox medicine completely after a consultation with us, but we never recommend or advise it. On the contrary, we advise accepting all orthodox treatments, but we respect each individual's right to choose the therapy that feels right for them. I would love to see these therapies far more widely available, as they can help make other cancer treatments more acceptable for patients.'

Ms McGilvray, a local government officer, was first admitted as an in-patient and received iscador treatment. She now visits the hospital as an out-patient every four to six months. She continues with her conventional treatment.

'Most complementary treatments are so expensive, and cancer patients often feel that, as they might die soon, they should not really be spending a lot of money on themselves. The new programme offered at the homoeopathic hospital is just like that available at a superlative alternative clinic,' she says.

(Photograph omitted)