Recent studies have shown that acupuncture can help control
a number of symptoms and side effects - such as pain, fatigue, dry mouth,
nausea, and vomiting - associated with a variety of cancers and their
Experts from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's
Integrative Medicine Service, who have either conducted or reviewed many of
those studies, recommend that cancer patients interested in acupuncture seek a
certified or licensed acupuncturist who has training or past experience working
with individuals with cancer.
Acupuncture treatment, a two-thousand-year-old component of
traditional Chinese medicine, involves stimulating one or more predetermined
points on the body, called acupoints, with needles for therapeutic effect.
Heat, pressure, or electricity may be added to intensify the effect of the
acupuncture needles. According to traditional Chinese medicine beliefs, energy
flows throughout the body along channels, or "meridians." Specific
acupoints are stimulated to increase energy flow along various channels
throughout the body to a particular tissue, organ, or organ system.
Treatment is usually customized to treat each patient's
particular symptoms. A typical acupuncture session, which takes about 30
minutes, involves the insertion of ten to 20 very thin, stainless steel
needles. Most patients receiving acupuncture experience no pain from the
insertion of the needles, and there is minimal risk of injury from acupuncture
treatments, with reports of fewer than one adverse event in more than 10,000
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
each year more than eight million Americans use acupuncture to treat different
ailments. Studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in the treatment of a
host of non-cancer-related health issues, such as back pain, chronic headaches,
osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, infertility, and hot flashes. Its use for
the treatment of symptoms and side effects of a variety of cancers has recently
been investigated in a number of studies and reviews.
Acupuncture for Head and Neck Cancer
For many of the more than 100,000 individuals diagnosed with
head and neck cancer each year in the United States, the cancer spreads from
its primary location to lymph nodes in the neck. When this occurs, nerves known
as spinal accessory nerves must also be removed along with the affected lymph
node, which can lead to shoulder function problems.
A study conducted by Memorial Sloan-Kettering investigators
and published in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology
sought to determine if acupuncture could reduce pain and dysfunction in individuals
with cancer of the head or neck who had received a surgical dissection of lymph
nodes in their neck. The study evaluated 58 patients who were suffering from
chronic pain or dysfunction as a result of neck dissection. For four weeks,
study participants were randomly assigned into one of two groups: those
receiving weekly acupuncture sessions and those receiving standard care, which
included physical therapy, as well as pain and antiinflammatory medication.
The study found that individuals in the group receiving
acupuncture experienced significant reductions in pain and dysfunction when
compared with individuals receiving standard care. Individuals in the
acupuncture group also reported significant improvement in xerostomia, a
condition in which patients receiving adjuvant radiation therapy experience
extreme dry mouth.
Acupuncture and Leukemia
Many people with leukemia try additional treatments outside
their standard care, hoping to manage symptoms and, in some cases, to improve
their treatment outcome. In a commentary on the subject in the September 2009
issue of Expert Reviews Anticancer Therapies, Memorial Sloan-Kettering
investigators examined the results from available studies testing the
effectiveness of such approaches. They report that among the complementary
therapies used to decrease symptoms and side effects, acupuncture is very
beneficial for symptom management.
For some leukemia patients, cancer chemotherapy drugs can
damage the peripheral nervous system (a condition known as peripheral
neuropathy), causing pain, numbness, tingling, swelling, and muscle weakness in
various parts of the body, especially in the hands and feet. In some cases,
doctors must reduce the chemotherapy dose in order to prevent the neuropathy
from progressing further. Acupuncture has been found to decrease these
difficult neuropathy symptoms, allowing the maximum amount of chemotherapy to
be used, thereby increasing the patient's chance for a successful outcome.
Acupuncture is also known to reduce the effects of nausea
caused by a variety of chemotherapy agents used to treat leukemia. Research has
shown that timing the acupuncture sessions one to two days before chemotherapy
infusion and continued weekly throughout the chemotherapy regimen produces the
best results. In addition, the authors note that acupuncture has been proven
safe for patients receiving the anticoagulation drugs CoumadinŪ or heparin
during their leukemia treatment.
The review's authors note that, in general, it is important
to distinguish between complementary therapies -- including acupuncture,
self-hypnosis, yoga, meditation, and therapeutic massage -- and alternative
therapies, which are unproven and ineffective, and may interfere with
mainstream cancer treatments.
Acupuncture and Breast Cancer
A significant number of breast cancers have receptors for
the hormone estrogen. These receptor-positive breast tumors are more likely to
respond to therapy with anti-estrogen medications, which take advantage of the
cancer cells' dependence on hormones for growth. Women with these tumors are
often given treatment that blocks the production of estrogen, which is meant to
slow the growth of the tumor. These treatments can induce early menopause,
leading to symptoms such as hot flashes, fatigue, and excessive sweating.
Because these women cannot receive hormone replacement therapy, which is
usually used to treat such symptoms, doctors typically prescribe
antidepressants such as the drug venlafaxine (Effexor).
A recent study examined whether acupuncture reduces some of
these common side effects and produces fewer adverse effects than
antidepressants. In the study, published in the February 2010 issue of the
Journal of Clinical Oncology, 50 women with hormone-receptor positive breast
cancer were assigned into one of two groups. The first group received 12 weeks
of acupuncture, and the second group received treatment with venlafaxine.
Both groups experienced significant decreases in hot
flashes, depressive symptoms, and other quality-of-life symptoms. However, women
in the group taking venlafaxine began to re-experience their symptoms about two
weeks after stopping drug therapy. In comparison, it took 15 weeks for the
symptoms to return for women in the group receiving acupuncture. In addition,
women in the acupuncture group reported no significant side effects during
treatment, while the group taking venlafaxine experienced 18 incidences of
adverse effects, including nausea, dry mouth, dizziness, and anxiety.