People are often surprised to learn of the use of acupuncture/Chinese medicine for cancer treatment support. There is actually a long history of such use, demonstrated by the fact that in the 16th century B.C., a turtle shell was discovered with the word “liu” or “stone” (for tumor) inscribed on it. But what of the modern, practical applications of this ancient healing modality for cancer care? In the U.S., there are mainly three areas of use.
By far the most common is for the treatment of side effects from the conventional treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. These include nausea, other digestive issues, neuropathy, insomnia, hot flashes, and pain. In my clinical experience, I have seen patients receive significant relief from these symptoms. And though it may seem strange as to how acupuncture could provide this relief, there is a way to understand in Western medicine terms how this can occur. For example, one of the major points for nausea relief is on the wrist (If you hold your hand palm up, and measure two of your thumb widths from the wrist crease, in between the two tendons when you make a fist is the point location). Now, in Chinese medicine terms, this point when needled acts to “subdue rebellious stomach Qi”. Huh? So, just like there is a respiratory center, and pain center in different parts of the brain, there is a part of the brain that gets too “hyper”, that results in that horrible feeling we call nausea. When an acupuncture needle is inserted into that wrist point, a nerve message is sent to that “nausea center” telling it to calm down. Now, “subduing rebellious stomach Qi” may sound more poetic, but it is describing the same effect as the nerve messaging idea.
The second main way Chinese medicine is used for cancer care support is in a more integrated way, meaning before, during, and after conventional treatment, acupuncture and Chinese herbs are administered to help with not only side effects, but also to help strengthen the body, help regulate the immune system, build blood counts, etc. M.D. Anderson and a major cancer hospital in Shanghai are in the midst of a two year study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, to investigate this approach for cancer treatment.
The third way is post-treatment considerations, which entail treating lingering side effect symptoms, strengthening of the immune system, any post-surgery healing needs, and inclusion in an overall approach to the prevention of recurrence. This is often a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, in addition to nutritional supplementation, if needed.
So, acupuncture/Chinese medicine can be used at any point in the timeline of a person’s battle with cancer: from diagnosis to the ongoing pursuit of optimal health.