Several years ago, a close friend of mine called to ask if I would consider giving her acupuncture treatments. Facing her second year of metastatic breast cancer, she had heard that acupuncture might help with the ravaging effects of cancer throughout her body. She spoke of her constant nausea and vomiting, her hair loss, and her depression and anxiety.
At the time, my acupuncture practice focused on a range of issues such as physical injuries, pain management, fertility, insomnia, headaches, stress and anxiety, and food, drug and alcohol addiction. Agreeing to treat a friend with cancer felt like I was taking on the issue of global warming. As many of us do, I had absorbed our culture’s fears and biases about cancer and was intimidated by the complex diagnostic terminology and the range of treatments.
Yet, coupled with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, I felt a tremendous weight of responsibility and a deep desire to help my friend as she moved through the next stage of treatments. I tentatively told her that I would dive into the research and would get back to her within the week.
Now, looking back on that initial phone call -- thousands of treatments and 12 years later, I have a profound sense of appreciation for what she taught me—acupuncture can offer tremendous relief and a unique form of support to people struggling with cancer.
I do not claim that acupuncture can treat or cure cancer or cause medical miracles. Indeed, I believe an acupuncturist’s role is to provide adjunctive therapy that supports and complements traditional Western medical treatment. However, after working with many cancer patients over the last few years, I do believe that acupuncture can be a powerful, life-changing form of medicine that works at all levels of mind, body and spirit.
The Amazing Power of Small Needles
The gentle insertion of hair-thin acupuncture needles at specific points along the meridian channels balances the energy of the body to help restore harmony and vitality. The safe and often painless insertion of sterile needles can unlock the obstructions and rebalance the Qi where it has become unbalanced.
Once the insertion of needles is done, Qi can freely circulate throughout the body, providing adequate nourishment to cells, organs, glands, tissues and muscles. This process can eliminate pain and restore balance and harmony, as well as invigorate the body’s natural ability to heal itself – ultimately leading to optimal health and well-being.
6 Benefits of Acupuncture for Cancer
So, how can acupuncture help cancer patients to deal more effectively with both the illness and the treatments? Acupuncture can help patients deal with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and excessive body heat. It can help detoxify and cleanse the body. And it can help a person deal with the wide range of emotional and psychological stressors that often accompany a cancer diagnosis. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
1. Nausea and vomiting
Many chemotherapy patients experience nausea and vomiting, an unpleasant and exhausting side effect of cancer-fighting drugs. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health convened a panel of medical researchers to examine the effectiveness of acupuncture. The panel found that acupuncture can play a key role in helping to reduce or eliminate chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Acupuncture patients often find that they do not need to take anti-nausea medications which can be associated with unwanted side effects.
2. Excessive body heat and hot flashes
Acupuncture treatments are designed to balance the body’s internal systems, including the body’s temperature regulation system. The basic principles of Yin and Yang correspond, in part, with the amount of heat and/or cold in the body. Treating hot flashes and excessive body heat are simple procedures that can make a profound difference in one’s daily comfort. With relief from or reduction of night sweats, patients often find that they experience deeper and more restful sleep.
One of my clients undergoing chemotherapy found that she did not lose her hair. From a Chinese medicine standpoint, keeping one’s internal thermostat cool helps some people retain their hair.
3. Revitalize the energy of the body
The central aim of acupuncture is to reinvigorate and balance the life and energy of the body. While chemotherapy and radiation kill cancer cells, they also can dampen and block the movement of Qi energy. Cancer patients who receive acupuncture treatment often experience increased energy levels and renewed strength to continue the healing process.
One client with a recurrence of stage II Hodgkin’s Disease writes: “Acupuncture helps to revitalize my spiritual and mental being so that my physical body remains strong and fit. After each session, my body returns to its original state of natural being: my fluidity of step and grace of movement is restored. My joie de vivre is revitalized.”
4. Cleanse the body of potent chemicals
Auricular acupuncture (acupuncture in the ears) can be a powerful tool to help the body detoxify from the heavy drugs used to treat cancer. Auricular treatments are an internationally-recognized, non-invasive, and effective method proven to help substance abusers stop drug use without severe physiological side effects. In a similar way, auricular acupuncture helps the body effectively process cancer-fighting drugs without interfering with the cancer treatment itself.
My client with Hodgkin’s writes: “For the first few days after chemo, my body is heavy with drugs. I feel sluggish…I believe what I have gotten from acupuncture – spiritually, physically, emotionally and mentally – goes beyond the power of any synthetic drug being used to treat my Hodgkin’s disease.”
5. Improved sensory functioning and renewed production of saliva glands
Cancer treatments often affect the sensory organs. For example, many patients that have cancer of the mouth, throat, or jaw area lose the proper ability to produce saliva (a condition called xerostomia). Research demonstrates that acupuncture can renew one’s sense of taste and smell and often helps patients regain some or all of the use of saliva glands.
One of my clients reported experiencing a constriction in her upper digestive system after chemotherapy.
“It felt like a tight band just below my chest. The small amount of food I was able to eat was not getting past the band or being digested. With acupuncture, the band relaxed and I was able to digest food properly.”
6. Relief from anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia and stress
While acupuncture can be extremely helpful in addressing many physiological concerns associated with cancer and cancer treatment, it can also help a person cope with the tremendous emotional and psychological challenges as well. Acupuncture treats the body, but it also supports the mind, emotions, and spirit. Acupuncture patients often report a greater sense of well-being and improved self-confidence in their ability to cope with the disease.
As one client with ovarian cancer states, “Acupuncture increases my physical energy and calms my mind. Acupuncture has led me to a more balanced, peaceful existence.”
Another client with cervical cancer reports, “Acupuncture strengthened my resolve to keep going even when things looked very bleak. Each session was “my time.” I wasn’t poked or prodded as a body with a disease but cared for as a whole person.”
Frequently Asked Questions About Acupuncture
Will my oncologist support me in receiving acupuncture treatments?
- If your physician supports holistic healing modalities in general, he or she will most likely be very supportive of your seeing an acupuncturist. Acupuncture will not interfere with any traditional medical treatments for cancer.
Does acupuncture hurt?
- The sensations that patients experience during acupuncture vary according to each individual. Some patients do not feel any sensations while others may feel a brief ache or heaviness in the area being needled. Some points are more sensitive than others. Generally, patients describe the sensations as fleeting and the treatment experience as deeply relaxing.
Is acupuncture covered by insurance?
- A growing number of insurance companies will reimburse for acupuncture treatments. Consult your insurer to determine the terms of coverage on your policy. Here are a few questions to ask:
-Will my plan cover acupuncture?
-How many visits are covered per calendar year?
-Do I need a referral from a primary care physician?
-Do I have a copay?
-Do I have a deductible? If yes, has it been met?
What is the cost?
- Treatment sessions generally last between 45 minutes and one hour and cost anywhere from $80.00 to $110.00, depending on the cost of living in your area. The first treatment is usually a longer session and costs more, and includes an initial medical history intake, a Chinese physical exam, and then the acupuncture.
About the Author
Deborah Earley, M.Ac., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., is a board–certified, licensed acupuncturist who practices in Dupont Circle in Washington D.C.. She has focused on the use of acupuncture for cancer patients both in her academic studies and in her clinical practice, working intensively with patients in all phases of cancer treatment and recovery.