After being poked and prodded for cancer treatment, testing, and surgery, it seems crazy that patients with cancer would ask for more needles, but that is exactly what’s happening when it comes to acupuncture.
“Patients are very open to acupuncture if there’s a chance it will help relieve their pain or other side effects,” Michael R. Spano, MS, LAC, an acupuncturist at the Integrative Medicine Center at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, said in an interview. “Besides, the needles we use for acupuncture are so tiny compared with what most patients are used to, they often laugh and say, ‘That’s all you’ve got?’”
According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture stimulates the movement of Chi, or energy, throughout the body by inserting very thin needles into the skin. Although acupuncture has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years, it’s taken some time to gain support in the United States.
Benefits of Acupuncture
Recent studies confirm that acupuncture can be helpful in decreasing certain side effects of cancer treatment for some patients.
According to Mr. Spano, the most important side effect that is backed up by research is the reduction of nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy and surgery. “We’re also finding great success in reducing xerostomia (or dry mouth) caused by radiation, abdominal pain following surgery, and diminishing the number of hot flashes for women who have been thrown into immediate menopause due to treatment,” he says.
“Another area where we are trying to determine the best protocol is for treating chemotherapy-induced numbness in the hands and feet,” Mr. Spano adds. “This can be very debilitating and chronic if it lasts for more than 13 to 26 weeks. By lessening this symptom, we can really improve patients’ quality of life.”
According to Mr. Spano, some studies indicate that following the proper acupuncture treatment plan can be just as effective as using drugs in reducing certain symptoms and side effects.
Ask Your Oncology team
As with any therapy, he encourages patients to speak with their oncologist before starting acupuncture. “Your oncologist will know if it’s an appropriate treatment, and may be able to provide a referral.”
Although acupuncture is generally safe when performed by a qualified acupuncturist, Mr. Spano strongly recommends seeking an acupuncturist who is familiar with cancer care, especially if you have active cancer in your body and are currently undergoing treatment.
“There is no national certification for acupuncturists treating patients with cancer. Interview your acupuncturists. Tell them your symptoms, and ask how they can help. Find out if they have experience treating cancer patients,” advises Mr. Spano. “Asking your oncologist, oncology nurse, or other patients for referrals can also be helpful.”