By Virginia Mims, DACM, LAc, NCMP
Doctor of Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine
For thousands of years, people have turned to acupuncture to relieve a wide variety of symptoms, safely and naturally. Today, people are also turning to acupuncture to help manage the side effects of modern cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Backed by current research, oncology acupuncture is now offered at many premier cancer centers, such as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Cleveland Clinic, as well as in private practices here in the Lexington area.
While chemotherapy and radiation are often the gold standard for cancer treatment, they commonly cause side effects which can have a profound impact on quality of life and wellbeing. Acupuncture is a gentle, drug-free approach which can help symptoms such as:
• Nausea and vomiting
• Hot flashes
• Dry mouth
• Loss of appetite
• Constipation and/or diarrhea
• Anxiety and depression
Nausea and Vomiting
One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy, nausea and vomiting is also one of the most researched in terms of effective treatment with acupuncture. Relieving nausea and vomiting not only improves quality of life, but also helps to maintain appetite, weight, strength, nutritional status, energy levels, and an overall sense of wellbeing.
While many medications treat nausea and vomiting, there are several reasons why some people choose acupuncture instead. For some, the anti-nausea medications have additional unwanted side effects. For others, the medications simply don’t provide enough relief. Some people choose acupuncture because they don’t want to take yet another medication. And patients who are already using acupuncture for other side effects will often ask their acupuncturist to treat their nausea and vomiting, too.
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network defines cancer-related fatigue as “a distressing, persistent, subjective sense of physical, emotional and/or cognitive tiredness or exhaustion related to cancer or cancer treatment that is not proportional to recent activity and interferes with usual functioning”.
Fatigue is the most common symptom experienced by cancer patients, and for many, it can last long after the end of their cancer treatment. Whether during or after treatment, research supports that patients may benefit from acupuncture for the relief of cancer-related fatigue.
Pain and numbness, including neuropathy
Of the many symptoms which Chinese medicine can help relieve, acupuncture is perhaps best known in this country for treating pain. Neuropathy—which can include pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness—is a common side effect of many chemotherapy regimens and can last well beyond the end of cancer treatment. Pharmaceuticals typically used for persistent neuropathy are often limited in their effectiveness, yet have significant side effects. As a safe, gentle, and evidence-based approach, acupuncture is a great option for relieving neuropathy and other types of cancer pain.
A common and often persistent side effect of cancer treatment, hot flashes can disturb sleep, increase fatigue, and negatively impact quality of life. While more common in women, men treated for prostate cancer can also be affected by hot flashes. Acupuncture is a natural alternative to estrogen and other medications for managing hot flashes and has been shown to have clinical effectiveness similar to non-hormonal drugs, with fewer side effects.
Additional benefits of acupuncture
In addition to managing specific symptoms, patients receiving acupuncture often experience improvements in other areas, as well, such as energy, digestion, sleep, and mood. Most people find acupuncture sessions to be deeply relaxing. Over time, regular sessions can reduce stress, anxiety and depression; strengthen immunity; decrease pain; and improve quality of life and an overall sense of wellbeing.
Integrating acupuncture with conventional cancer treatment
As a complementary and integrative therapy, acupuncture does not replace conventional treatment, but can be used alongside it to minimize side effects and improve quality of life. As a holistic therapy, acupuncture addresses specific symptoms while providing support and care for the whole person.
Finding a qualified acupuncturist
To ensure that your acupuncturist meets and maintains rigorous national standards for education, supervised training, and ongoing professional development, check to see that they are certified by the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). You may also want to ask if they have had additional specialized training in oncology acupuncture.
Dr. Virginia Mims specializes in natural women’s health and wellness. Nationally board certified in both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine (NCCAOM), she earned her doctorate from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. She is a Certified Menopause Practitioner (NCMP) through the North American Menopause Society, the leading organization for women’s health at midlife and beyond. Dr. Mims trained in oncology acupuncture through Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and she holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Duke University.
Acupuncture for Women
Bao, T. (n.d.) Acupuncture for chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). In IMS/Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Fundamentals of Oncology Acupuncture [PowerPoint].
Deng, G. (n.d.). Oncology acupuncture for nausea and vomiting. In IMS/Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Fundamentals of Oncology Acupuncture [PowerPoint].
Latte-Naor, S. (n.d.) Cancer related fatigue in clinical practice. In IMS/Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Fundamentals of Oncology Acupuncture [PowerPoint].
Mao, J. J. (n.d.) Oncology acupuncture for hot flashes. In IMS/Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Fundamentals of Oncology Acupuncture [PowerPoint].