A frequently asked question by patients undergoing cancer treatment is, “can acupuncture help me?”
The issue then becomes: is there a place for acupuncture in the vast field of cancer, with its diverse treatment modalities?
Vast, since cancer is not one disease but more than 300 different malignancies, each with its own unique histology, pathophysiology, and clinical behavior. Diverse, because of the different chemotherapeutic classes of agents, hormonal agents, types of high-energy particle beam generators, and various delivery systems for radiation treatment. Diverse also because cancer care encompasses various types of surgical procedures, nutritional support, and the body-mind holistic approach.
Timely diagnosis and early surgery offer the most favorable possibility of a cure for solid tumors. The germinal cancers and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, along with some hematologic malignancies such as childhood leukemia, are the few exceptions. These are treated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or bone marrow or stem cell transplantation, singly or in combination. Some of these are the most predictably curable malignancies with or without surgery.
If the diagnosis is late, if the surgery is unsuccessful, or should the tumor recur after surgery, then the chance of a cure, with rare exceptions, is considered lost. This class of patients, along with those not amenable to surgical approaches, is treated palliatively. Palliative therapies also consist of chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, and radiation therapy and/or palliative surgery.
The Acupuncture Option
The role of acupuncture in the curative group is in its adjunctive use in anesthesia, in post-operative pain control, and in aiding and hastening recovery from the side effects of the various therapies. Acupuncture is effective for control of pain, of local swelling post-operatively, for shortening the resolution of hematoma and tissue swelling, and for minimizing use of medications and their attendant side effects.
Energetic acupuncture, an approach consisting of the use of needles with electricity and moxibustion (a form of local heating with herbs), imparts a sense of well-being and accelerates patients’ recovery. In conjunction with nutritional support, its use is routinely employed in some cancer institutions.
The dreaded nausea and vomiting that commonly occur with some patients undergoing chemotherapy can often feel worse than the disease itself. Most oncologists have met patients who start vomiting at the thought of their next clinic visit.
At the UCLA School of Medicine, in a well-controlled study completed over two years ago, the authors of the published paper reported significant reduction of nausea and vomiting when pre-treated with acupuncture. It is now often administered before, after, and in between chemotherapy treatment sessions for control of nausea. Such treatment is relatively simple and easily executed in an outpatient setting. Its effectiveness helps in minimizing the use of standard, expensive multi-drug anti-nausea regimens, with their attendant side effects, that are given along with the chemotherapeutic agents.
That acupuncture is a powerful tool for general pain control is widely known. Less known is its successful use in some cancer-related pain and in reducing narcotic use and thereby minimizing the side effects of confusion, behavioral changes, nausea, and severe constipation.
Needling a variety of trigger and painful points, percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and osteopuncture, along with whole-body energetic acupuncture support, are approaches available to the acupuncturists. In the acupuncture paradigm, any chronic disease process depletes a person’s energy level. Such depletion can be ameliorated, at least temporarily, by tonification, a process of imparting energy into the system.
This is deemed necessary for more durable, successful pain control. It can also add to the patient’s sense of well-being and decrease the malaise associated with any chronic disease, especially cancer.
Nutritional support as an aid in boosting immune response in cancer patients, along with minimizing the immune and white blood cell suppression that occurs with most chemotherapeutic agents, has been receiving greater attention and funding for research. Dr. Kenneth Conklin, an anesthesiologist in UCLA’s Oncology Department, reports gratifying results utilizing nutrition and supplements combined with energetic acupuncture.
Energetic acupuncture repletes energy level to the person as a whole, and re-establishes homeostasis by re-balancing energy distribution and unblocking energy flow. This systems approach to deal with system-wide pathophysiology can be complemented by distinct meridian acupuncture, which directs healing energy to specific organ pathology and is a routine approach in treating diseased organs such as the liver, the pancreas, and the kidney, including those ravaged by cancers.
The Bottom Line
While the degree of beneficial results from acupuncture treatment is dependent on various clinical factors such as presenting symptoms, clinical staging, and timing of the encounter in the course of the illness, the answer to the question, can acupuncture help me? is, in all probability, that it can help in the care of certain cancer patients.
Eugene Mak, MD is a board-certified Oncologist and board member of the Medical Acupuncture Research Foundation. This article was first published by the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture; www.medicalacupuncutre.org
Acupuncture is becoming more widely accepted for the treatment of myriad health concerns. These are some of the issues for which patients seek an
acupuncture solution, according to the World Health Organization.
Blood pressure regulation
Immune system tonification