How Does Acupuncture Help Cancer Patients?


It is difficult in today’s world to find someone who hasn’t been personally affected by cancer in some way. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and according to the National Breast Cancer Center, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Many oncologists are beginning to explore the healing possibilities that acupuncture has to offer patients and are encouraging them to seek additional support from integrative medical therapies such as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.

According to the World Health Organization, acupuncture is used in at least 78 countries for different symptoms including cancer and treatment related symptoms. Acupuncture is a safe and effective therapy to manage cancer symptoms. A large amount of research has been done on acupuncture and cancer. In fact, many major cancer centers in the United States are now offering acupuncture services to patients. Almost 90% of the United States National Cancer Institutes designated cancer centers recommend that patients try acupuncture and over 70% of those centers offer acupuncture on site for side effects from cancer treatments. The intention for acupuncture as a treatment for cancer is to be used alongside of conventional treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy because studies have shown the effectiveness is multiplied when cancer is fought using several methods.

The goal of acupuncture is to create harmony and balance within the body While chemotherapy and radiation kills cancer cells, these therapies can also bog down and decrease the movement of qi within the body. When including acupuncture into a regimen of cancer treatment, increased energy levels and renewed strength are often experienced. Acupuncture stimulates the nervous system which releases the body’s natural painkillers and immune system cells which in turn helps to decrease inflammation, reestablishes homeostasis, relieves side effects from cancer treatments and restores balance within the body. In Chinese Medicine, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are very warming, drying forces that creates a lot of heat and disrupts the natural internal balance or homeostasis within the body. Chinese Medicine views these therapies as impacting the system tremendously, stressing the systems and organs. Acupuncture focuses on nourishing the imbalances which in turn decreases the treatment’s side effects such as poor sleep, fatigue, hot flashes, irritability, nausea and vomiting, digestive issues, worry and stress. The side effects of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery can be as bad as the disease itself and lower a patient’s overall quality of life.

Acupuncture can be extremely helpful in addressing the physiological issues that can arise with cancer and cancer treatments. It can also help a person to cope with the emotional and psychological concerns that may arise as well. Chinese Medicine supports the body, mind, emotions and spirit and with treatment patients often report a greater sense of well being and confidence in their ability to cope and fight this disease. According to cancer clinics in California, cancer patients had significantly better outcomes if their cancer treatments were in conjunction with acupuncture. Many studies are showing that acupuncture treatment is as good as if not better than standard treatments for managing symptoms and side effects from cancer treatments.

Research supports the use of acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for the following symptoms and side effects:

◊ Pain Management:
Cancer pain is the most common and one of the most debilitating symptoms in cancer patients. Pain can be caused by the direct effect of cancer or from cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. It is estimated that up to two thirds of patients with metastatic cancer experience cancer related pain. Cancer pain is typically treated with opioids, interventional anesthetic or neurosurgical procedures. Even with maximum usage of pain medications, a significant portion of cancer patients still suffer from pain in addition to the undesired side effects from medications. Studies have shown acupuncture to be very effective in managing pain related to tumors, inflammation, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Though acupuncture may not replace pain medications, it can help to reduce the amount needed and in the side effects of those medications. According to a French study published in 2003, acupuncture patients had a 36% reduction in pain after 2 months of acupuncture treatments.

◊ Nausea and Vomiting:
About 75% of patients undergoing chemotherapy experience nausea and/or vomiting as a side effect. Currently, the most research studied and the strongest evidence examines the effect of acupuncture on chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting. Acupuncture treatment has been shown to reduce the intensity and frequency of nausea and vomiting in patients receiving chemotherapy. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, acupuncture has been shown to be more effective than anti-nausea medications for patients undergoing high dose chemotherapy. Acupuncture can also help to restore the appetite and regulate patterns of digestion. Another study published by Duke University has shown that acupuncture was more effective then Zofran (a popular drug prescribed for chemotherapy induced nausea/vomiting). Patients often find that they do not even need to take anti-nausea medications once receiving acupuncture treatments. Research shows strong evidence for timing acupuncture treatments one or two days before chemotherapy and continued weekly throughout the chemotherapy regimen in order to reduce symptoms and achieve the best results.

◊ Hot Flashes:
A common treatment for certain types of breast cancer is using estrogen blocking drugs. Estrogen is a hormone which a significant number of breast cancer cells feed on for growth. Using these drugs can help to decrease the growth of breath cancer cells but tend to cause early menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes, fatigue and excessive sweating. Because hormone therapy is not an option for those with breast cancer, physicians typically prescribe anti-depressants such as the drug Venlafaxine (Effexor) to manage symptoms. A study in 2010 published in the Journal of Oncology showed that women who took Effexor began to re-experience their symptoms about 2 weeks after stopping drug therapy. In comparison, patients who received 12 weeks of acupuncture treatments also experienced significant decreases in hot flashes as well as there being 15 weeks before the symptoms returned. Women in the acupuncture group also reported no significant side effects during treatment while the group taking Effexor experienced 18 incidences of adverse effects. With acupuncture providing relief from or reduction of hot flashes, patients often find that they are able to get more restful sleep and stay on their therapy. From a Chinese Medicine standpoint, by keeping the internal thermostat balanced and cool, some patients have found that they have been able to retain their hair as well.

◊ Neuropathy:
A common side effect of chemotherapy is neuropathy which can include a variety of symptoms such as numbness, tingling, swelling, pain and muscle weakness. It is estimated that approximately 38% of patients treated with multiple agents experience this symptom. Chemotherapy induced neuropathy can be significant enough to delay or reduce the amount of treatments and can even discontinue treatment in some cases. For those with persistent chemotherapy induced neuropathy, symptom management may include narcotics, anti-depressants and anti-epileptic medications which all have a long list of possible side effects. Acupuncture can be used during or after cancer treatments to support the healing and repairing of nerves, restoring normal nerve function. Acupuncture can improve circulation within the body leading to the regeneration of the damaged nerves improving neuropathy. By using acupuncture to manage neuropathy symptoms, a patient’s chances for successful outcome can be increased by allowing chemotherapy treatment to continue.

◊ Fatigue:
Long term fatigue is a common side effect in patients with cancer and a frequent side effect from chemotherapy and radiation therapy that 80-90% of cancer patients report as being debilitating. In a study done by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, 31% of people showed a reduction in post chemotherapy fatigue after acupuncture treatment when compared to standard care alone. With the increased energy from acupuncture, patients also find an increase in their will and strength to be able to fight cancer.

◊ Dry, Painful Mouth and Throat:
Cancer patients that are receiving radiation treatment may experience pain and swelling of the mouth and throat making it difficult to swallow as well as xerostomia (dry mouth) due to the reduction of salvia production. Some patients have reported losing their sense of taste as well during treatment. Acupuncture has been shown to decrease all of these side effects allowing the patient to swallow, eat and drink normally.

◊ Aromatase Inhibitor Joint Pain:
Aromatase inhibitors are one of the most commonly used treatments for breast cancer. These drugs are used to lower estrogen levels within the body and are usually taken over five to ten years in order to reduce the risk that the cancer will recur. As with most medications, these drugs cause side effects – especially arthritis like pain, which can cause up to half of the women who take the medication to take it irregularly or to stop taking it altogether. About 50% of women on aromatase inhibitors report some sort of joint pain or stiffness and about half of those patients report the pain being severe enough to cause them to stop taking the drugs. Acupuncture is a safe and effective alternative approach for managing or reducing aromatase inhibitor induced joint pain.

Increased inflammation is part of the physiology of most cancers. Many of the treatments for cancers such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery cause painful inflammation as well. Acupuncture reduces pain and swelling related to inflammation and decreases the inflammatory response throughout the body overall.

◊ Immune System Modulation:
Many cancers and cancer treatments cause a suppression of bone marrow which is the source of blood cells that make up the immune system. This decreases the immune response in the body and allows for cancer patients to be more at risk for the common cold, infections and other pathogens. Acupuncture increases blood cell production, enhances the natural killer cells and lymphocytes within the body which leads to an increased immune response and decrease of infection. Acupuncture can also improve the white blood cell counts in patients who are receiving chemotherapy which helps to decrease the risk and chance of infection. In post cancer patients, acupuncture can enhance the immune system of patients who may be immunosuppressed by chemotherapy or radiation to work with their own bodies in order to stay in remission as well as can help with continued preventative care.

◊ Quality of Life and Mood Improvement:
A cancer diagnosis is challenging physically but can also be overwhelming mentally and emotionally. Acupuncture is known to help balance the body, mind, emotion and spirit. Research shows that Traditional Chinese Medicine can be as effective as drugs at treating depression and imparts a sense of wellbeing and increased energy that can stabilize moods, create more vitality, strength and will to fight which can accelerate a patient’s recovery.

Research shows that acupuncture is a safe, effective and gentle complementary therapy for all age groups with no unwanted side effects which make it a great option to explore if you or someone you love is battling the effects of cancer and traditional treatment options. Patients that use this treatment in conjunction with traditional treatment methods report that they feel calmer, happier, and stronger and experience less worry and anxiety in addition to helping their physical symptoms. The potential that acupuncture can bring to cancer patients in managing symptoms brought on from cancer itself as well as the side effects from chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery is significant. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, I invite you to explore the healing possibilities that acupuncture has to offer in conjunction with traditional therapies and reach out to Oasis of Harmony Wellness with any questions, concerns that you may have or to set up a treatment time.


2 thoughts on “How Does Acupuncture Help Cancer Patients?

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