As acupuncture and oriental medicine continue to gain acceptance in the west,
they are increasingly being used in conjunction with western conventional
medicine to treat a range of conditions, including cancer. Acupuncture in
particular has received much attention for its use in cancer pain and
post-operative and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Acupuncture’s use in cancer patients has been recommended by the American
Cancer Society (ACS) for the treatment of cancer and treatment-related
symptoms. Pain, nausea, breathlessness, vasomotor symptoms and limb edema have
all been found to respond to this treatment modality.

Acupuncture can act against carcinogens (factors attributable to cancer
development) through its ability to reduce stress and enhance immune function.
Indeed, several cancer centers have begun incorporating acupuncture for
treating cancer-related symptoms such as pain and many patients have had
significant results in the reduction of their symptoms.

Before describing how acupuncture can be effectively integrated into the care
of the patient, it may be helpful to first gain an appreciation of what cancer
is and the various western conventional therapies that are often used in its

What is cancer?

As one of the leading causes of death in North America, cancer is a disease
that few can ignore. It arises from abnormal changes in the genetic make-up of
cells that cause them to multiply uncontrollably. The abnormal cells then
spread locally or to other regions of the body via the lymphatic or blood
circulation. Several factors are believed to trigger the cell mutations that
give rise to cancer. These include hereditary susceptibility, immune
dysfunction, increasing age, improper dietary intake, extreme stress, hormonal
therapy and environmental, infectious, and therapeutic carcinogens (agents that
are associated with cancer development).

Conventional treatment

Common cancer therapies include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy,
immunotherapy, and hormonal therapy. While surgery involves the physical
removal of tumors, other treatments such as chemotherapy work on inhibiting
cell growth and multiplication. All these therapies can be very effective and
are often critical components to helping a patient survive. Removing tumors
through surgery and radiation can prevent further metastases (cancer spread to
other areas of the body) and complications. Unfortunately, these and other
treatments can be very difficult for the body to process and recover from.
Several of the drugs used in chemotherapy are not only toxic to cancer cells
but to healthy cells as well and can cause mild to severe bouts of nausea. By
depleting the bone marrow and thus inhibiting the production of white blood
cells, red blood cells, and platelet cells, chemotherapies can increase a
person’s risk of infection, cause fatigue and dizziness, and impair wound
healing respectively. Furthermore, chemotherapeutic agents can cause hair loss
and skin rashes from damage to the cells of the hair follicles and skin.
Hormonal drugs such as tamoxifen (used in the treatment of breast cancer), have
also been shown to increase the risk of thrombosis (blood clotting) and
endometrial cancer.

Therapies such as gamma knife radiotherapy and cyberknife involve focused
radiation to a particular part of the body and are sometimes offered as an
alternative to surgery. In addition, newer chemotherapeutic drugs promise less
toxicity and fewer side effects than ever before. These advances are indeed
encouraging. So where, you might ask, does acupuncture and oriental medicine
fit in?

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which consists of acupuncture, Chinese
herbal medicine, tuina (Chinese massage therapy), nutrition, counseling, and
physical exercise (such as Tai Qi and Qi Gong), is a comprehensive medical
system based on over three thousand years of experience. The earliest drawings
of tumors have been found on turtle shells and “oracle bones” from
the eleventh century B.C. Texts dating from 200 B.C. have detailed descriptions
of the quality of tumors and their cause.

Similar to conventional western medicine, TCM attributes cancer to one or a
combination of factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and environment. Cancer is
the accumulation of external or internal factors or both, that create
disharmony in the normal functioning of the body, and combine to produce a
diseased state. In ancient texts, it was believed that factors such as extreme
cold and intense sadness could also lead to unhealthy conditions such as
cancer. When treating patients, the TCM physician takes a complete inventory of
the person and considers such things as musculoskeletal abnormalities, energy
level, body temperature, complexion, sleep, appetite, diet, digestive
functioning, emotions, and overall lifestyle.

The traditional Chinese medicinal treatment of cancer is based on the principle
of fu zheng gu ben. Roughly speaking, fu zheng means strengthening what is
correct, the qi, the forces in the body regulating normal healthy development.
Gu ben refers to strengthening and enhancing the processes of regeneration and
repair, which Chinese medicine locates in the kidney. Traditional treatment
includes removing toxins that may contribute to cancer, increasing the flow of
blood and qi, removing undesirable accumulations of tissue that are the tumor,
and restoring self-regulation and balance among the jing, shen, and qi. The
means that are used – acupuncture, herbal and nutritional therapies, tai chi,
qi gong, tui na, and counseling – are each designed to further one or more
aspects of this process.

Acupuncture for various stages of cancer

For conditions where the cancer is detected early, acupuncture can maintain and
promote the normal functioning of the body. Several studies done primarily on
animals have shown its ability to boost the immune system and encourage the
growth of healthy functioning cells. This could be important for counteracting
the result of radiation and chemotherapy that tend to attack both normal and
abnormal cells. An additional benefit of acupuncture is that it can induce a
state of deep calm and relaxation and alleviate physical and emotional tensions.

In cases where a tumor has formed, acupuncture can be used pre- and
post-operatively where appropriate as an adjuvant therapy to surgery,
radiation, or chemotherapy. According to a study done by Poulain (1997) on 250
patients who underwent gynecological surgery for cancer, acupuncture was shown
to speed recovery time. A recent study done by Aldridge (2001) on a series of
40 breast cancer patients, found that acupuncture could reduce nausea and
vomiting following surgery and significantly reduce post-operative pain.

For advanced stages of cancer, acupuncture can be used in conjunction with other
forms of palliative care to significantly reduce the sensation of pain. In some
cases, patients may be able to reduce the dosage of pain medication
substantially and thereby avoid the harsh side effects that are often
associated with them.

How does acupuncture work? The eastern and western explanations

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the body is composed of an intricate web
of energy pathways known as “meridians”. The twelve regular and eight
extra meridians help to maintain a balance of yin (substances which nourish the
body) and yang (related to activity and function) within the body. Each
meridian is named after the specific internal organ that it encompasses and
through which it passes. Through these meridians, the internal and externalaspects of the body are connected.

When “qi” (vital energy) and “xue” (blood) flow freely
through the meridians, the body is in good health and can perform at its
optimum. However, if a particular energy pathway does not function properly,
the flow of “qi” and “xue” can become obstructed,
hyperactive (excessive), hypoactive (deficient) or even flow in reverse. This
can affect the function of the meridian’s corresponding organs, which causes an
imbalance of the body’s yin and yang, and ultimately affects the functioning of
the body as a whole.

From a TCM perspective, acupuncture stimulates specific points on the body
where energy collects and flows through the meridians and regulates the overall
flow of energy so that the body can return to a state of balance and health.

From a western medical perspective, the insertion of hair-fine sterile and
disposable needles into the subcutaneous layers of the skin can have profound
influences on several regulatory systems. When used correctly, acupuncture has
neuro-physiological effects that can release pain-reducing endorphins; affect
the metabolism of serotonin, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that affects
both pain perception and mood; and improve circulation and immune function.
Acupuncture specifically works to relieve nausea by releasing chemicals that
control the vomiting centre in the brain as well as decreasing acid secretion
and inhibiting abnormal gastric contractions.

So why are the needles inserted in specific places? Many acupuncture points are
also palpably detectable hollows or anatomical tissue planes, which in Western
theory, may signify easily influenced zones of lymphatico-neurovascular bundles
in the subcutaneous tissue. Peripheral endings of cranial and spinal nerves,
and penetrations of neurovascular bundles through superficial fascia, have been
cited as morphological findings of acupuncture points.

What to expect from an acupuncture treatment

Though the insertion of needles under the skin might not sound appealing, the
reality is that the fine needles cause little discomfort or pain since they are
inserted below the skin layer. Once the needles are inserted, patients may feel
a dull, heavy sensation accompanied by a slight tingling or numbness in the
local area of insertion, that usually dissipates within a few moments. The
needles are then retained for approximately twenty minutes. Most people find
this experience to be quite relaxing and some may even fall asleep. After the
acupuncture session, the practitioner may also use other modalities such as
tuina (Chinese massage therapy) to complete the treatment. For chronic
conditions such as cancer, treatments will be regular (at least once or twice a
week) and adjusted according to the particular condition a person is in.

Some final thoughts

Cancer is not a death sentence. It is a life-changing experience not only for
those who have it, but for others as well. Educating ourselves as to what
options are available for treatment and overall healing can only improve our
opportunities to live a healthier and happier life.

From providing adjuvant therapy for pain and associated emotional aspects
relating to cancer, to treating side-effects such as nausea and decreased
immunity arising from the more toxic and invasive conventional treatments,
acupuncture and oriental medicine are invaluable resources that can guide the
body towards a healthier state.

Our current medical system in the west comes from a background of reductionism,
where we reduce a person to the sum of their body parts. This means that when
treating a patient, there is a tendency to deal with the parts rather than the
whole. Furthermore, our focus in health care has in large part been on
treatment rather than prevention. While these views have their place, a more
pronounced shift towards prevention, treating the whole person, and allowing an
individual’s natural healing abilities to take part in the healing process, is
necessary if we truly want to promote health. Here is where the integration of
eastern with western medicine can truly make a difference.








About the author: ChineseHerbalAdviser