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Cancer and Acupuncture

Cancer in 2008 according to The World Health organization  was the cause of 7.6 million deaths worldwide which equals thirteen percent of the global population. Unfortunately it is estimated that the death rate from cancer will hit 13.1 million by 2030.

Actual figures suggest that up  to 30%  of cancers are caused by the use of tobacco, excessive alcohol intake, unhealthy diet, lack of physical exercise, high BMI, obesity, air pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. However while there are some explanatory reasons such as tobacco smoke on lung cancer, looking at  general global statistics, cancer rates  are in the most distributed unevenly. For example, the Western  hemisphere has witnessed an increase in certain cancers such as Non Hodgkinsons Lymphoma but a decrease in Stomach cancer.

The disease cancer has always been around and despite the fact that the word cancer is not found  in ancient classical texts, it is mentioned in terms of masses or tumors.   The term Liu/tumor can be traced back to inscriptions recorded on tortoise shells  and bones in the Shang Dynasty(11th-16th Century).Today,Chinese Medicine in cancer treatment is a mixture of acupuncture, herbal medicine,dietary advice, tai chi and  qigong. It treats according to pattern identification by assessing the patients overall presentation. It  supports Vital qi which enhances the  immune system therefore allowing the body to withstand diseases. It regulates Yin and Yang and factors in the internal, the emotional as well as the external elements while helping to  prevent, correct or reduce iatrogenic pain due to surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Today, in the East, TCM is prescribed to cancer patients based not only on the disease entity but on the overall symptoms, signs and health condition of the patient. The treatment objectives are to strengthen the hosts defense on the one hand, ‘weaken’ the tumor on the other, followed by removal of tumors with surgery and chemotherapy or radiation if necessary. The findings in Japan at present support incorporating TCM alongside chemotherapy which then  allows for stronger Western Medical treatment as the TCM negates the awful side effects,by helping to restore the bodys strength and balance while improving the immune system. Essentially integrating the two systems is an evolving process globally that will hopefully see enhanced efficacy of treatments, see improved symptom control that will hopefully alleviate  patient distress and reduce suffering.

Here are some symptoms that Acupuncture is proven to help during and post cancer treatment.

Pain is seen as an interruption of qi, blood or even phlegm in the channels from a TCM point of view. Cancer is by its nature a painful condition.  The treatments used for cancer  can cause pain, swelling and inflammation. Acupuncture and Auricular acupuncture are effective treatments for managing the pain that surgery, tumors , inflammation, chemotherapy and radiation cause. The use of acupuncture activates the spinal chord, midbrain and the hypothalamic-pituitary centers,activating the release of endorphins, enkephalins, monoamines and cortisol to block the pain messages therefore inducing an analgesic effect.  It is also a system to be embraced as there are no side effects unlike the pain medication used that can cause nausea, constipation and fatigue in the patient. Therefore the use of acupuncture  can halt the need for increased medication dosages therefore reducing the risk of the patient suffering from  severe side effects such as cardiopulmonary depression and renal or hepatic toxicity. (

Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy to the GI tract, liver or brain are the main reasons for severe nausea and vomiting. Acupuncture has been well documented in many studies at P6 to reduce if not stop nausea and vomiting in studies. For example a study by J. W. Dundee in Queens University in Belfast proved that electro acupuncture on P6 significantly relieved the nausea and vomiting on patients who had a history of distressing sickness after chemotherapy treatment. The study involved 130 patients whereby 97% stated that sickness was either completely absent or had reduced significantly post chemotherapy. (

Lots of studies are  indicating that acupuncture can boost energy levels and radically improve a patient’s quality of life during and post chemotherapy. Fatigue can be described as “bone tired” and can ruin the quality of life the patient has. A study in 2007 by Professor Alexander Molassiotis in the University of Manchester showed that the acupuncture group reported a 36% improvement in fatigue levels, the acupressure group improved by 19% and the sham acupressure group improved by 0.6%. (

Bone marrow suppresion or myelosuppresion is a serious side effect of chemotherapy. The bone marrow is the manufacturing centre of blood cells which are responsible for providing immunity, blood clotting and carrying oxygen. Chemotherapy affects the new blood cells that are being made by the the bone marrow causing a deficiency of blood cells. The inability of the body to produce leukocytes lowers the bodes response to invading bacteria and viruses thus elevating the patients risk to serious infection. the lack of red blood cells increase the risk of anaemia and severe bleeding can occur due to low platelet count. Acupuncture has been involved in many trials proving that it has a positive effect on increasing blood cell production and modulating NK cell number and function. it also boosts the production of Lymphocytes which increases immune response and decreases the risk of infection. Needling st 36 alone triggers stimulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis to release an endogenous opiod neurotransmitter (β-endorphin), which travels from the brain via the blood stream to body locations containing immune cells. (

Xerostomia or severe dry mouth due to a reduced salivary flow occurs in cancer patients receiving radiation therapy. This leads to difficulties in talking, swallowing and sleeping while also increasing the risk of infection.  Research from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center has shown  that acupuncture achieved very good results at decreasing these side effects  as early as three weeks into treatment. Allowing the patient to be able to swallow, eat and drink normally and reduce the incidence of infection, pain and swelling during radiation therapy. (

Breast cancer patients and prostate cancer patients suffer hot flashes while undergoing hormonal treatment.  These hot flashes are so bad that they disrupt sleep and cause distress and discomfort and a dip in the quality of life for the patient.

The majority of breast cancers are hormone receptor-positive. These cancers are stimulated to grow by the circulating female hormones estrogen and/or progesterone. Treatment of hormone receptor-positive breast cancer often involves hormonal therapies that suppress or block the action of estrogen. These therapies include tamoxifen  as well as agents known as aromatase inhibitors. Tamoxifen acts by blocking estrogen receptors, whereas aromatase inhibitors suppress the production of estrogen in postmenopausal women. The common side effects of hormone treatment includes hot flashes and night sweats. Effexor an anti depressant can help manage these symptoms but can produce side effects of its own that may not be acceptable to some women.

Two weeks after completing treatment with acupuncture or Effexor, hot flash frequency increased in the Effexor group but  frequency of the hot flashes in the Acupuncture group remained low.

Acupuncture  has shown  promise in reducing hot flashes in breast cancer patients so researchers conducted a study to compare it to Effexor.The study involved 50 women with Stage 0-III breast cancer who were experiencing hot flashes during hormonal therapy. Half the women received acupuncture for 12 weeks, and half the women were treated with Effexor for 12 weeks. Both groups experienced significant decreases in hot flash frequency. Both the Acupuncture and the Effexor were effective at reducing hot flashes.  Two weeks after completing the treatment with Acupuncture or Effexor hot flash frequency increased in the Effexor group however the Acupuncture group  reported low frequency of hot flashes. The effexor group also reported side effects including nausea, dry mouth and anxiety whereas the Acupuncture group had no side effects but reported and increase in sex drive, mental clarity and energy.

These study suggests that acupuncture may be as effective as Effexor at reducing the frequency of hot flashes in breast cancer patients treated with hormonal therapy. But in comparison to Effexor,t Acupuncture created no negative side effects. (

Prostate cancer patients are put on hormonal therapy to reduce the levels of testosterone in their bodies. The side effects of this treatment are uncomfortable hot flashes. A study  using acupuncture showed results of reduction in symptoms of 68.4% after 2 weeks increasing to 89.2% after 6 weeks of treatment. No side effects were reported with a level of reduced symptoms at 80.3% after 8 months. (

Written by Suzanne Cafferky

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