Almost everyone has had a friend or a family member who has battled cancer. When the cancer diagnosis is given, the cancer patient is faced with many choices. “Do I choose chemotherapy, radiation or surgery? Do I take natural supplements? Do I go on a macrobiotic diet? Should I start doing yoga or Tai Chi?” There is a huge amount of information published on cancer and cancer treatments and it is difficult to decipher which recommendations and remedies are legitimate.
The book Integrative Oncology by Donald Abrams and Andrew Weil, Oxford Press, Nov 2008 is a great resource for patients and their caregivers to find out about natural treatments for cancer that have been proven through rigorous scientific studies. Integrative Oncology is a collection of chapters written by MD’s, Naturopaths, Chinese Medicine doctors and other scientists and researchers who specialize in researching and treating cancer.
I am a member of The Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO). SIO is an international research society that meets annually to allow cancer researchers to network and share what they’ve learned in their clinics and research laboratories. SIO is made up of about 80% MD’s and PhD’s, and 20% oncology nurses, ND’s (doctors of naturopathy) and LAc’s (acupuncturists and Oriental Medicine specialists). At the annual conferences, we hear data presented on foods that combat cancer such as broccoli, turmeric and medicinal mushrooms. We hear about studies that have revealed that many cancer patients have very low levels of vitamin D and melatonin, a hormone that is important for a good night’s sleep. We also hear about treatments such as acupuncture that can help combat the unpleasant symptoms caused by radiation and chemotherapy that sometimes are so severe, they cause an interruption in the cancer treatment.
In the past, cancer patients would often die from the harmful effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Western medicine has made such advances in cancer treatment in the last 20 years; a diagnosis of cancer is no longer considered a death sentence. Oncologists have discovered newer chemotherapy and radiation treatments that cause less damage to healthy tissue and the immune system. Nevertheless, chemo and radiation still have side effects. Although now, there have been so many studies that support the use of acupuncture for the symptoms of chemo and radiation that many cancer centers in the US have acupuncturists on staff.
Nausea and vomiting are among the most common of the side effects of both chemotherapy and radiation to the abdominal area. New advances in drugs for nausea and vomiting have helped lots of patients, but some are not helped by the anti-nausea medicine and still have difficulty. The use of acupuncture for the nausea and vomiting is probably the most proven and documented of the AOM cancer treatments (1,2). Another complaint of cancer patients is the total exhaustion caused by the chemo and radiation. In more recent studies, acupuncture has been shown to alleviate the fatigue and increase energy in the cancer patients (3).
A common side effect of radiation to the head and neck is a severely dry mouth, caused by dysfunction of the salivary glands. In western medicine it’s called xerostomia. Xerostomia is maddening. Patients have difficulty sleeping, eating and speaking due to lack of saliva. It causes tooth decay and gum disease. In the 90’s Oncologists at the US Naval Medical Center in San Diego discovered that acupuncture increases saliva in xerostomia patients (4). Since then many researchers have conducted studies on the successful use of acupuncture for xerostomia (5).
The side effect that is responsible for the most disruptions in chemotherapy is a decrease in either white blood cells or platelets. In western medicine this is called neutropenia and thrombocytopenia. Studies have shown that acupuncture can increase both white blood cells and platelets (6,7). Therefore acupuncture can be used to keep the immune cell counts high in cancer patients so they don’t have to skip any needed chemotherapy treatments due to low white blood cells or low platelets.
There are many more chemo and radiation side effects where acupuncture has been found effective in treating pain and neuropathy from chemotherapy, radiation irritation and burns to the skin, depression, anxiety, hot flashes and more (8).
Acupuncture clearly is effective as a single modality within the whole medicine system of TCM for cancer patients, both to support the whole system and to help combat the symptoms of chemo and radiation so that cancer treatments do not have to be interrupted, to help patients survive both the cancer and the treatments.
By Jennifer A. M. Stone LAc
- NIH Consensus Conference (1998) Acupuncture. JAMA 280(17):1518-24
- Melchart D, Ihbe-Heffinger A, Leps B, von Schilling C, Linde K (2006) Acupuncture and acupressure for the prevention of chemotherapy-induced nausea–a randomised cross-over pilot study. Supp Care Cancer 14(8):878-82
- Mao JJ, Styles T, Cheville A, Wolf J, Fernandes S, Farrar JT (2009) Acupuncture for nonpalliative radiation therapy-related fatigue: feasibility study. J Soc Integr 7(2):52-8
- Johnstone PA, Niemtzow RC, Riffenburgh RH: Acupuncture for xerostomia: clinical update. Cancer 2002, 94(4):1151–1156.
- Meng Z, Garcia MK, Hu C. (2011) Randomized controlled trial of acupuncture for prevention of radiation-induced xerostomia among patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Cancer 2011 Nov 9. doi: 10.1002/cncr.26550.
- Lu W, Matulonis UA, Doherty-Gilman A, Lee H, Dean-Clower E, Rosulek A, et al. (2009) Acupuncture for chemotherapy-induced neutropenia in patients with gynecologic malignancies: a pilot randomized, sham-controlled clinical trial. J Altern Complem Med 15(7):745-53
- Ladas EJ, Rooney D, Taromina K, Ndao DH, Kelly KM (2010) The safety of acupuncture in children and adolescents with cancer therapy-related thrombocytopenia. Supp Care Cancer 18(11):1487-90
- Johnstone PA, Polston GR, Niemtzow RC (2002) Integration of acupuncture into the oncology clinic. Palliat Med 16(3):235–239
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