An underestimated naturopathic treatment for cancer is acupuncture. The potential for acupuncture to improve quality of life in the cancer patient population is huge. A review of the medical research is quite impressive. A recent review concluded that the majority of studies support the benefit of acupuncture for cancer-related pain, cancer-related fatigue, nausea and vomiting, hot flashes and quality of life.(1) This begs the question as to why this therapy is not considered as a part of standard of care.
Many studies have shown that acupuncture treatments can increase white blood cell production, with a recent study of stage 2 and 3 colorectal patients showing that weekly acupuncture sessions along side chemotherapy increased white blood cells, natural killer cells and neutrophils compared to the chemotherapy alone group (2).
A recent pilot study of 25 patients who had grade 2 or greater peripheral neuropathy for an average time of 19 months post-chemotherapy received once-weekly treatments for 10 weeks. At the end of 10 weeks, pain scores decreased from 20.1 to 13.2, 56% of people reported improved daily function (walking, doing up buttons), and 40% of patients reported more than a 50% decrease in symptoms. Results persisted at 4 week follow up (3).
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting is a common experience in postoperative settings, as well as post-chemotherapy. A Cochrane review looked at the results from 26 studies with more than 3000 patients who had received acupuncture for nausea and vomiting, and found that stimulation of one single point was extremely effective. Further, data indicated that acupuncture was superior to antiemetic medications (4).
Cancer-related fatigue is not the sort of fatigue that is alleviated simply by rest and sleep. It is often debilitating and can persist chronically post treatment. Patients often seek out complementary care for this symptom. One study of stage 1 to 3 breast cancer patients randomized 75 patients to usual care (no acupuncture) and 227 to receive once weekly treatments for 6 weeks. Fatigue scores were measured before and after treatment, and after the 6 weeks of treatment, there were significant improvements in fatigue in the acupuncture group compared to the control group (5).
Hot flashes are a very common side effect of hormone therapies given to women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer. One small study looked at seven men with prostate cancer who had been prescribed androgen deprivation therapy and who were experiencing hot flashes. Each man had twice weekly acupuncture sessions for six weeks, and at the end of treatment the severity of hot flashes had decreased, and all men reported at least a 50% reduction in the frequency of hot flashes (6). Another larger clinical trial involved 120 breast cancer survivors who were experiencing at least twice daily hot flashes. They were randomized to receive either weekly acupuncture sessions for 8 weeks, or daily gabapentin. The hot flashes improved the greatest in the acupuncture group, with fewer side effects (7).
One study of 183 patients who were either in remission or actively receiving treatment were treated with acupuncture for the chief complaint of pain. Results showed that mean symptom severity scores for chronic pain decreased from 7.04 to 2.56 (8).
Lymphedema results from the removal of lymph nodes due to breast cancer. One study defined it as a greater than 2 cm difference in the circumference of each arm. They enrolled 37 breast cancer patients, who received twice weekly treatments for 4 weeks. The average reduction in the size of the affected arm was 0.9 cm, which was deemed statistically significant (9).
Xerostomia (Dry Mouth)
One study randomized 145 head and neck cancer patients suffering from dry mouth to eight sessions of acupuncture or usual oral care. Compared with usual care, acupuncture produced significantly greater reductions in patients reports of severe dry mouth, sticky saliva, needing to sip fluids constantly, and waking in the night to drink (10).
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- Can J Urol, 2015;22(4):7938-7941.
- J Clin Oncol, 2015;33(31): 3615-20.
- Acunpunct Med, 2013;121:39-55.
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- Ann Oncol, 2013; 34(3):776-83.