Studies less than five years ago have revealed that acupuncture is able to help control certain side effects and symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, pain, and fatigue associated with some forms of cancer and their corresponding treatments. Researchers from the Integrative Medicine Service of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who have either reviewed or performed several of those studies, advise that cancer patients considering acupuncture therapy should consult with a licensed or certified acupuncturist who has past experience working with individuals with cancer or has the right training.
A part of a traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a 2500 year-old ancient therapeutic technique that involves the stimulation of one or more preselected points on the body, known as acupoints, with needles to generate a healing effect. The treatment may be augmented with electricity, pressure, or heat to amplify the effect of the needles. Based on traditional Chinese medicine theory, energy circulates like blood throughout the body through “meridians” or energy channels. The needles in the acupoints stimulate the flow of energy and blood along different channels throughout the body to a particular an organ, tissue, or organ system.
The treatment is always tailored based on each patient’s specific symptoms. The treatment usually lasts about 30 minutes and uses 10 to 20 sterilized stainless steel filiform needles. Most patients treated with acupuncture do not complain of pain from the needle insertions. The treatment is completely safe with very little risk of injury; in fact, fewer than one adverse event in more than 10,000 treatments has been reported.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year there are more than eight million Americans who get acupuncture treatment for various types of ailments. Several researches indicate acupuncture’s efficacy in treating a lot of health issues unrelated to cancer like hot flashes, infertility, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, chronic headaches, and back pain, among many others. Recent reviews and studies have investigated acupuncture’s use for the treatment of side effects and symptoms of a number of cancers.
In the United States, greater than 100,000 people are diagnosed with neck and head cancer each year. The cancer usually metastasize (spreads) from its original location to lymph nodes in the neck. This can result in the removal of the affected lymph node and nerves known as spinal accessory nerves that in turn, can result in shoulder function problems.
In April 2010 the Journal of Clinical Oncology published a study performed by Memorial Sloan Kettering researchers who sought to see whether acupuncture could alleviate dysfunction and pain in people with cancer of the neck or head who underwent a surgical removal of lymph nodes in their neck. A total of 58 people who suffered from dysfunction or chronic pain caused by neck surgery participated in the study. The subjects were randomly divided into two groups for four weeks: one group received conventional treatments such as anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs as well as physical therapy while the other group received weekly acupuncture treatments.
The results of the study showed that when compared to the patients who received conventional care, the people in the group treated with acupuncture experienced marked reductions in dysfunction and pain. The acupuncture group also showed significant improvement in extreme dry mouth or xerostomia, a condition experienced by patients who have undergone radiation therapy
Leukemia and Acupuncture
Hoping to improve their treatment outcome or at least manage their symptoms, a lot of leukemia sufferers try treatments other than the conventional care they are receiving. A study that was published in Expert Reviews Anticancer Therapies in September 2009 and again conducted by researchers at the Memorial Sloan Kettering analyzed the outcomes from available studies that tested the efficacy of such approaches. They state that acupuncture is extremely beneficial for the management of symptoms among the adjunctive treatments used to reduce side effects and symptoms.
Cancer chemotherapy can be damaging to the peripheral nervous system of some leukemia patients (it can cause neuropathy), which leads to symptoms such as muscle weakness, swelling, tingling, numbness, and pain in various parts of the body, especially in the feet and hands. In certain instances, physicians need to lower the chemotherapy dose in order to halt the further progression of the neuropathy. Acupuncture has shown to reduce these burdensome symptoms, making it possible to use the maximum amount of chemotherapy, thus improving the patient’s chance for a successful outcome.
This treatment has also shown to lower the effects of nausea that a number of chemotherapy agents for leukemia induce. Studies reveal that timing the acupuncture sessions one to two days prior to chemotherapy procedures and continued weekly throughout the chemotherapy regimen produce the best outcomes. Moreover, the authors state that acupuncture is safe for patients taking heparin, Coumadin or other anticoagulation medications during leukemia therapy.
The writers of the review say that, generally speaking, distinguishing between complementary treatments (therapeutic massage, meditation, yoga, self-hypnosis, and acupuncture) and other alternative treatments that are ineffective and unproven is important because these alternative therapies may interfere with conventional cancer therapies.
Breast Cancer and Acupuncture
Several types of breast cancer have receptors for the estrogen hormone. These receptor-positive breast tumors that exploit the dependence of the cancer cells on hormones to develop are highly likely to respond to anti-estrogen drug therapy. People with these tumors are usually given treatment that halt the manufacture of estrogen, which hopefully, will slow down the development of the tumor. These therapies can lead to early menopause, resulting in symptoms such as excessive perspiration, fatigue, and hot flashes. Doctors usually prescribe Effexor (venlafaxine) or other antidepressants because hormone replacement therapy that is usually used to treat such symptoms is contraindicated for these women.
The Journal of Clinical Oncology in its February 2010 issue published a study that observed whether acupuncture can relieve some of the typical side effects and help lessen the adverse effects of antidepressants. In the study 50 women with hormone-receptor positive breast cancer were divided into two groups. One group was treated with venlafaxine while the other group received acupuncture treatment for 12 weeks.
Quality-of-life symptoms such as depression and hot flashes significantly decreased in both groups. The venlafaxine group, however, began re-experiencing the symptoms a couple of weeks after discontinuing drug therapy. In the acupuncture group however, a total of 15 weeks went by before the symptoms returned. Moreover, during treatment, the acupuncture group members experienced no significant side effects, compared to the venlafaxine group that reported 18 incidences of adverse effects, including anxiety, dizziness, dry mouth, and nausea.
Searching for the Right Acupuncturist for Cancer Patients
The NCCAOM or National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine gives a list of practitioners who are certified nationally in Asian bodywork therapy, Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, and Oriental medicine. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Integrative Medicine Service has trained thousands of acupuncturists from several other countries and across the United States. A list of acupuncturists who are cancer-trained is kept by the Integrative Medicine Service. All integrative medicine specialists emphasize how important an acupuncturist who has training in working with cancer patients and who is NCCAOM licensed or certified is in the treatment of cancer.