Easing Side Effects: Acupuncture & Cancer Treatment

Within each and every one of us, there exists a life force that flows through our bodies. Religions often speak of the soul, spiritualists may refer to the prana and in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the qi or chi.

Let’s imagine a river. A healthy, natural river flowing in its natural state. Imagine this river as it takes twists and turns along its path. Yet, when it is blocked or impeded by some natural or unnatural dam, the ‘energy’ from upstream backs up. Taking this metaphor one step further, we can imagine this ‘energy’ within us being disrupted as we undergo various treatments for breast cancer. The harsh side effects of radiation. The nausea and vomiting that accompany chemotherapy. And other symptoms that range from dry mouth to hot flashes to peripheral neuropathy all knock us off balance.

In TCM, when our qi or chi is disrupted, acupuncture can our bring internal flow back into balance. Here’s how this ancient and effective practice can help combat side effects of cancer treatment and ease those in our community.

The Body’s Natural Pain Killer

Our bodies have an amazing ability to provide relief when we need it – under normal circumstances – a vigorous run can release a rush of serotonin, the feel good chemical and elevate our mood. A good night’s sleep provides the right levels of hormones to reset and take on daily stress. But, when facing dis-ease and distress caused by chemotherapy, our regular system needs a helping hand. Or, in this case, a tiny needle. Acupuncture is an alternative medicine practice that stimulates the nervous system into releasing natural pain killers that help alleviate the painful side effects of cancer treatment. (It is not intended to treat or cure cancer.) 

Acupuncture has been around for over 3,000 years to treat and manage chronic pain and conditions. More recently it is being considered and studied as an option for those undergoing cancer treatments to mitigate pain and manage side effects. Acupuncture comes in, primarily, three different practices: manual needle stimulation, electrical pulse stimulation and heated stimulation. 

Certainly the practice of using needles to mitigate pain may seem counterintuitive. And others may be concerned that acupuncture has limited practical applications for medical purposes. Yet, more and more research is being done to monitor and study the veracity and safety of acupuncture for cancer patients. And it turns out, a practice that has worked for 3,000 is not without merit. 

Promising Pathways to Better Supplemental Therapy

According to research, acupuncture appears to be both safe and effective for cancer patients. It also appears to reduce the side effects of treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy and hormone therapy.

In fact, it’s becoming common for medical doctors such as anesthesiologists and neurologists, to be trained in acupuncture. Medical doctors who complete training and certification requirements can be found here

Acupuncture is showing serious promise when it comes to helping cancer patients. Although some of the research is preliminary, acupuncture has been shown to reduce post-chemotherapy fatigue by 31% for various cancers. And for breast cancer patients, in one study, symptoms such as hot flashes were cut in half. 

In general, the most common side effects that acupuncture appears to reduce are nausea and vomiting, dry mouth and hot flashes, and peripheral neuropathy. Let’s return to the river metaphor once more. While this may not be a complete return to balance, it’s closer than it was before. 

Practicing Caution and Protecting Our Health

While acupuncture may prove to be a safe supplemental therapy to combat the side effects to cancer treatment, we must proceed with caution. There are three very important risks to weigh. 

  • With certain breast cancers, if lymph nodes have been removed, there is a risk of developing lymphedema with acupuncture. 
  • Anytime a needle is introduced in treatment, the risk of infection rises for cancer patients. It is important to discuss this with both our doctors and acupuncturists at every treatment to practice strict health standards.
  • Bleeding can increase for anyone with low white blood counts or bleeding disorders. This should always be discussed with health care providers before any treatment.

As always, practicing common sense and an overabundance of caution is recommended with any supplemental treatment during cancer treatments. It never hurts to over communicate.

Like the river, the energy that runs through our lives ebbs and flows. Sometimes it rages. And other times, it needs our help. Our body’s ability to heal is remarkable. And both western and traditional medicinal practices are showing positive benefits to our community. 

"The smooth, balanced flow of chi — your life-force energy — is the single most important determinant to your health, vitality and happiness." – Taoist Lineage Master, Bruce Frantzis