Acupuncture for Cancer Patients

by:  Michael Forrest, MD                                           

We are all familiar with the benefits of standard cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  But, there are also complementary treatments which can help with side effects of traditional therapies, both during and after treatment. These are used along with, not as an alternative, to standard therapies.

Complementary therapies that have shown benefit in cancer patients include acupuncture, mind-body modalities (such as guided imagery, meditation, and hypnosis), support groups/counseling, massage, physical activity, and nutritional counseling.  These modalities help patients get through treatment by increasing one’s sense of control, hope, and immune response while reducing inflammation and stress.  The benefits of disease-appropriate diet and physical activity are obvious.  Less obvious is how some of the other complementary therapies work.

Acupuncture, for example, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, and is an important part of modern Chinese medicine as well.  It consists of insertion of very fine disposable needles a short depth into the skin by a licensed acupuncturist.  The needle locations are quite specific for the problem to be addressed.  Needles can be placed either into the external ear or throughout the body, according to longstanding charts that localize “acupoints”along the body’s “meridians”.

Acupuncture has shown benefit in cancer-related pain, both musculoskeletal, such as joint pain from hormonal therapy in breast cancer patients, and nerve pain caused by certain chemotherapy drugs. There are also reports showing that acupuncture reduces nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, both in adults and children.  It can also help improve saliva flow after radiation therapy to the head and neck.  Data for acupuncture to relieve hot flashes due to hormonal therapy are less firm.  But, in those with severe hot flashes more than seven times per day, it is as helpful as prescription medication, without the negative side effects.

Acupuncture has been tried for many other conditions.  It seems to be helpful in combination with education, for smoking cessation.  It may also be helpful in cancer-related shortness of breath, fatigue, and post-surgery pain.  Side effects from acupuncture are exceedingly rare, but the needles used are regulated in the USA as a medical device and should only be performed by a licensed acupuncturist.

At Epic Care Cancer Care Centers, we recommend and offer the latest standard cancer therapies including radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal, and biologic treatments.  But, we also strive to help our patients through these sometime difficult therapies, by discussing and referring for complementary modalities such as acupuncture.  Many insurers will cover acupuncture for certain indications and there are charitable groups, such as the Sandra Wing Healing Therapies Foundation, that provide grants to patients for this and other complementary treatments.

Dr. Michael Forrest is a board certified radiation oncologist with Epic Care, an East Bay group of experts in the diagnosis and comprehensive treatment of cancer and blood disorders. Dublin, CA (925) 452-1852