Every day in the United States almost 5000 people are newly diagnosed with some form of cancer. Every year over 600,000 Americans die, making cancer the most common cause of death. Cancer touches all of our lives, but it is in many cases preventable and treatable. Acupuncture and TCM offer alternative methods of care that can help people who are at risk or already battling cancer to improve their chances against this seemingly relentless form of disease.
In the past few decades, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) have become widely recognized as effective ways to both enhance the efficacy of conventional medical treatments for cancer, as well as providing palliative care for the pain and other unpleasant symptoms caused by both the disease itself and the negative side effects caused by cancer treatments.
A systematic review of the use of acupuncture as an adjunct to surgery and/or chemotherapy concluded: “Recent advances in acupuncture clinical research suggest that acupuncture may provide clinical benefit for cancer patients with treatment-related side effects such as nausea and vomiting, post operative pain, cancer related pain, chemotherapy-induced leukopenia, post chemotherapy fatigue, xerostomia, and possibly insomnia, anxiety and quality of life.”
Top 5 Types of Cancer Treatments
Cancer is a comprehensive term that refers to a wide variety of diseases caused by abnormal cell growth in the body. When old or mutated cells begin to duplicate they can create masses, or tumors, that compress and damage adjacent healthy tissues. Some forms of cancer cause abnormal cells to multiply within the blood. Most cancers are named according to where they begin in the body, and there are over a hundred different types. The most common are breast cancer, skin cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer.
Cancers are usually diagnosed based on physical examinations, laboratory tests, imaging tests (CT scan, MRI, bone scan, or ultrasound), and/or tissue biopsy. A treatment plan will be based on many factors, including the type and stage (how far it has spread) of the cancer and a patient’s overall health aside from the cancer.
The most common types of oncology procedures are:
- Surgery: Performed to remove cancerous growths and malignant tumors, when possible. Surgery may be used alone or along with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or immunotherapy. Surgery works only for some forms of cancer, and works best when tumors are detected early, before the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Patients must be in relatively good health otherwise in order to withstand the anesthesia and recovery. Sometimes cancerous cells may be left in the body even after the surgery.
- Chemotherapy: The use of medications to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy generally lasts from three to nine months, and can have side effects including fatigue, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, early menopause, and hot flashes.
- Radiation therapy: The use of high doses of radiation to destroy cancer cells. Side effects generally include fatigue, hair loss, and skin darkening at the site of the treatment.
- Targeted therapy: uses chemical drugs to target the way genes and proteins behave within the specific cells affected by the mutation. Targeted therapy can prevent the cancerous cells from dividing and growing, and in some cases kill them, while aiming to avoid damaging surrounding tissues.
- Immunotherapy: This treatment works by increasing the number of antibodies and cytokines to fight cancer cells. Side effects depend on the specific type of therapy, but they can include rashes or swelling, flu-like symptoms, fatigue, nausea, and loss of appetite.
The side effects of these treatments will affect people to different degrees depending on their constitution, but in many cases, they are severe. They can totally disrupt life and work, leading to feelings of loss and depression.
How Can Acupuncture Help Cancer Treatment Side Effects?
Committing to conventional treatment for cancer is a difficult decision for every individual. Treatment requires a lot of scheduled time, help from friends and relatives, and extra resources so that the patient can recuperate. Some people may have mixed feelings about aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation and be uncomfortable with the idea of putting toxic chemicals into their bodies. Concerns about how serious side effects may impact their lives and those of their family can lead to even more anxiety.
Acupuncture and TCM offer an alternative form of care that can in many cases mitigate the uncomfortable side effects caused by medical treatments, allowing patients to withstand the courses of treatment recommended by their oncologists. For those who may want to forego or delay aggressive treatment to pursue a more natural course, acupuncture and TCM can provide a comprehensive, holistic plan to boost immunity, improve nutrition and sleep, remove toxins from the body, and clear the way for healing.
Side effects of common oncology treatments that can be helped with acupuncture include:
- Post-operative pain
- Nausea and vomiting https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2666860/
- Depression and anxiety
- Hot flashes
- Leukopenia (low white blood cell count)
- Radiation induced xerostomia – dry mouth
The concept of the balancing energies of yin and yang is central to TCM. From the TCM viewpoint, radiation therapy applies extreme yang energy to the body, in effect, “cooking” the tissues. This can destroy the cancerous tumors, but it also dries and weakens blood and bone marrow, which can compromise nutrition and natural immune function. Chemotherapy is a form of yin energy, poisoning the cancer cells, but also inhibiting the flow of nourishment and warm energy through the body. TCM attempts not only to alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms caused by these oncology treatments, but to offset their negative effects on the organ systems.
Cancer Causes and Care From the TCM Point of View
Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have been used for thousands of years to treat conditions known today as cancers. Today in China, using combinations of Western medical practices and TCM modalities to treat cancer is widely accepted. In China, doctors who train in Western-style medicine also receive training in TCM, and vice versa, so physicians of all specialties are aware of alternatives and integrative possibilities. In the United States, oncology research and progress is highly advanced, and we have the opportunity to create excellent integral care for patients who seek out CAM modalities such as acupuncture to complement their other care.
Over 3000 years of written records show how in ancient times Chinese doctors identified and treated liu yan, or “lumps hard as rocks,” and zhong yang, or “inflamed ulcers.” Cancer treatment according to Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Fu Zheng Gu Ben principles. This means to “strengthen what is correct” and “secure the root.” This theory incorporates specific immune enhancing herbs. The objective is to support and stimulate deep energy systems within the body to make them more resistant to degeneration.
According to this TCM theory, tumors and other abnormal cellular formations are the result of accumulated blood, Qi, and dampness that have become toxic, causing stagnation and depletion of the vital essences of the life force energy. When masses form, they cause further obstruction and blockage of the free flow of Qi and blood. Acupuncture and herbal interventions will focus on:
- Removing toxins that may contribute to cancer
- Increasing the flow of blood and Qi
- Clearing accumulations of tissue
- Restoring self-regulation and balance among the Jing, Qi and Shen (essence, energy, and spirit)
Treating the person, not just the disease, Acupuncture practitioners take a holistic approach to cancer care. This means that not only test results and symptoms are considered, but also lifestyle, emotional state, and overall health. The whole being is taken into account, not just the localized cancer.
TCM acknowledges that the emotional life of the person plays a key role in health maintenance. According to TCM, cancers form because of stagnation due to constriction; long periods of grief and sadness can create these circumstances. Anger and anxiety can generate excess heat and lead to toxicity in the body. When these forces combine with exposure to toxins in the environment, food choices that exacerbate toxicity, lack of sleep, and increased stress, diseases like cancer can take hold. A qualified TCM provider works with patients to create the deep, lasting changes necessary to turn these forces around and bring the body back into balance.
Acupuncture and Herbs for Integrative Cancer Care
Many recent studies aimed at investigating the effects of acupuncture for specific types of cancer have shown that patients experience statistically significant improvements.
Acupuncture can help relieve the joint pain and stiffness many women have due to the aromatase inhibitors they are prescribed after breast cancer surgery. It has also been shown to reduce hot flashes and night sweats, which affect the majority of breast cancer patients and survivors.
People with advanced stage lung cancer had less pain and clinically significant improvement of overall well-being after receiving at least six acupuncture treatments.
Chinese herbal formulae are vital to the TCM approach to cancer. Herbs can work on a deep level to initiate change in the body. Depending on each individual presentation, an acupuncturist will choose herbs that help to inhibit growth of masses, dispel heat or cold, revitalize the blood and Qi, and resolve phlegm. One study treated advanced non-small-cell lung cancer patients with both chemotherapy and two decoctions of herbs meant to nourish Qi and replenish jing. The patients taking Chinese herbs had higher survival rates than those in the control group.
Research into how TCM specifically treats liver cancer with herbal formulations to strengthen the spleen and clear heat and toxins showed that patients taking the herbs in addition to chemotherapy experienced decreases in the size, growth and spread of cancerous liver masses and lived longer.
Aside from pain and nausea, insomnia and anxiety are the most common problems related to undergoing cancer treatment. Acupuncture is a highly useful modality for helping to restore healthy sleep and prevent worries from becoming a chronic mental health issue. When acupuncture and TCM are integrated into oncology care, maintaining a positive outlook during recovery and even establishing an overall healthier attitude towards life and health feels more achievable.
Find Acupuncture in Los Angeles for Integrative Cancer Treatment
Successful recovery from cancer requires teamwork. A patient has the best chances of navigating this difficult path when doctors work together to provide the most advanced techniques as well as caring support. Adding a qualified acupuncturist to your oncology team gives you an alternative means to improve quality of life and long-term chances of living cancer-free. Drs. Tan and Cai have over 30 years of expertise and are highly trained in both TCM and conventional medicine. They are ready to work with you, your family and friends, and your oncology specialists to provide the optimal cancer care.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.