Although acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat a number of medical ailments, it has only recently crossed over to the Western medical world, including for cancer patients.
Acupuncture may have originated in 100 B.C., but it is only now gaining in popularity as a form of complementary medicine in the Western medical world. That’s likely due to many reasons, from a minimal amount of major scientific research backing its claims to a generalized xenophobia for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). But despite claims against its effectiveness, many cancer patients have turned to the practice as a method of relief from cancer treatment side effects like nausea, pain, hot flashes, and fatigue.
“Acupuncture’s precise mechanism of action has still not been elucidated by science, but it is a virtually risk-free complementary treatment that has much potential to relieve some of the most painful and difficult aspects of cancer treatment,” says Yelena Deshko, N.D., the founder of the Timeless Health Clinic in Toronto and a specialist in integrative oncology. According to a 2009 paper in the journal Hematology/Oncology Clinics of North America, “randomized clinical trials have demonstrated that acupuncture is effective for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.” As well, “research studies also suggest acupuncture may be helpful in managing cancer-related pain, chemotherapy-related neutropenia, cancer fatigue, and radiation-induced xerostomia.”
In recent years, cancer centers across the United States have added integrative acupuncture into their overall cancer care, including the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. This speaks to its larger overall acceptance. According to the Hematology/Oncology report, “specific use of acupuncture by cancer patients is estimated to range between 1.7% and 31%.”
For those unfamiliar, navigating acupuncture may seem overwhelming, but the practice’s increasing popularity has made this form of complementary medicine more accessible than one may think.
HOW IT WORKS
Acupuncturists insert disposable, stainless steel needles into precise acupoints in a patient’s body. The acupoints are chosen based on the concerns a patient has within their body. According to a report from the National Cancer Institute, “the inserted needles may be twirled, moved up and down at different speeds and depths, heated, or charged with a weak electric current.” Common types of methods include auricular acupuncture, electroacupuncture, trigger point, laser, acupressure, and cupping.
Researchers believe acupuncture works through the stimulation and the responses of the neuroendocrine system involving the central and peripheral nervous systems. According to the Hematology/Oncology report, “data from animal research suggests that therapeutic acupuncture is partially mediated through opioidergic and/or monoaminergic neurotransmission involving the brainstem, thalamus, hypothalamic as well as pituitary function.” Additionally, “acupuncture stimulation moderates a wide network of brain regions, including the primary somatosensory, sec-ondary somatosensory, and anterior cingulated, prefrontal, and insular cortices, amygdale, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and other areas.”
For cancer patients, special consideration must be taken when administering acupuncture. Cancer patients are carefully assessed in order to get a holistic sense of what symptoms are part of a larger issue. Hygiene is key.
“Practitioners who treat cancer patients regularly are aware of the importance of hygiene because of a patient’s potentially compromised immune system as well the types of conditions that may show up and how to treat them,” says Stephen Chee, MD, LAc, an integrative medicine specialist dual trained as a doctor and acupuncturist. “Personally, I always make it a point to do everything I can to help cancer patients feel heard and also feel empowered with any and all choices possible (like the focus of today’s treatment, room temperature, music, and lighting).”
Practitioners may also look out for rare risks that might occur if patients suffer from bleeding disorders or are taking blood thinners. “One large study found only 43 minor adverse events associated with 34, [and] 407 treatments with no serious adverse events reported,” says the Hematology/Oncology report.
WILL IT HELP?
Yes, at least according to a number of clinical studies, as well as anecdotal evidence. Although acupuncture is not a cure for cancer, it can be a temporary cure for the side effects of common Western treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. Nearly 55 percent of cancer patients still suffer from various forms of pain which impact their quality of life, says the World Health Organization, and with the rise of opioid abuse, many are hesitant to use pain relieving meds for fear of dependance. Acupuncture may provide much-needed relief. According to the Hematology/Oncology report, “several [randomized controlled trials] specifically studied acupuncture pain control during surgical procedures and found that acupuncture reduced analgesic requirement of drugs such as morphine, piritramide, and alfentanil.” Other trials have found it useful for conditions like post-operative pain in patients with breast cancer, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer.
It has also been used as symptom relief for depression and anxiety. A 2015 report in the journal Translational Andrology and Urology (TAU) found 15 to 25 percent of [cancer] patients will report depression (a rate that is at least four times greater than that of the general population) and 10 to 30 percent will experience an anxiety disorder. According to the Hematology/Oncology report, “massage combined with acupuncture in post-operative cancer patients can improve the depressive mood of these patients when used in conjunction with usual care.”
HOW TO GET IT
Those interested in incorporating acupuncture into their current or post-cancer treatment should first ask their oncologist for a referral to an acupuncturist. As mentioned earlier, many health care facilities have now added integrative acupuncture clinics. As well, working with an oncologist typically insures a direct line of communication between the oncologist and the acupuncturist. Every patient is different and may require different needs or concerns based on their current treatment. “Ask the acupuncturist how often do they treat cancer patients,” says Chee. “It’s important for patients to feel and to know that they are in experienced hands.” However, acupuncture is still not covered by most health insurance providers, so there may be more cost-effective options outside of a hospital setting.
If your oncologist can not provide a referral, a patient should find a naturopathic clinic or Traditional Chinese medicine clinic that specializes in oncological care. Deshko recommends patients make sure oncologist offices share any important medical records with the acupuncturist before treatment. Respect and empathy can change an experience from awkward or uncomfortable into one that is beneficial. “Too often, the cancer experience for patients feels impersonal or disempowering,” says Chee. “Often a little extra kindness can go a long way for a patient in an overwhelming situation.”