This 3,000-Year-Old Treatment Has Real Benefits for People With Cancer

Although acupuncture is an ancient practice, its effectiveness has long been a subject of debate in the medical community. Questions about the benefits of acupuncture are now being put to rest, thanks to mounting evidence supporting its use.

A 2012 review of 29 clinical trials that included about 18,000 patients showed that acupuncture is indeed an effective treatment for at least several ailments: chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, shoulder pain, and headaches, specifically.

Acupuncture has also been well-studied as a complementary cancer treatment – and the term complementary versus alternative is key here. “Right now, there’s really no alternative to mainstream cancer care,” explains medical oncologist and acupuncturist Ting Bao, MD, Director of Integrative Breast Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “So, we try to do evidence-based complementary integrative medicine that goes together with mainstream cancer care.”

How Does Acupuncture Help People With Cancer?

Acupuncture is one of several drug-free options that people with cancer are seeking out to enhance their quality of life during and after treatment.

“We’ve been trying to do different kinds of research to study the different mechanisms of acupuncture,” says Dr. Bao. “Right now, there’s a general consensus that it works by modulation of hormones secreted by the nervous system. When nerves are stimulated, chemicals like endorphins are released in the brain.”

Acupuncture has been shown to improve quality of life for cancer patients by treating certain cancer-related symptoms, post-operative pain, and some side effects of chemotherapy. There’s particularly strong evidence that acupuncture can help manage pain and decrease chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Research also shows that acupuncture helps with insomnia and is effective in treating hot flashes, fatigue, and dry mouth related to radiation.

Researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) and elsewhere continue to explore acupuncture’s potential when it comes to improving the lives of cancer patients. “We are currently conducting a large study to evaluate the effects of acupuncture for chronic pain and psychological distress such as anxiety and depression in cancer survivors,” says Jun Mao, MD, Chief of Integrative Medicine at MSK.

Scientists are also trying to understand whether a person’s genetic background will make them more or less responsive to acupuncture. Additionally, MSK investigators are finishing up a pilot study exploring whether acupuncture can help prevent chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (tingling and numbness in the extremities) from worsening in patients during treatment. A new trial is set to begin testing whether acupuncture can help patients who suffer from persistent neuropathy symptoms after treatment ends.

Other Complementary Therapies on the Rise

Acupuncture isn’t the only complementary therapy being offered by today’s major cancer centers. For example, MSK’s Integrative Medicine Service provides several other holistic offerings in addition to acupuncture:

Massage therapy: The benefits of massage therapy are short-term, but significant. A study published this year found that people with cancer experienced less anxiety, fatigue, nausea, and pain when massage therapy was given during their chemotherapy infusions. It also enhanced patients’ overall satisfaction and treatment experience.

Mind-body techniques: Mind-body techniques like yoga and meditation are backed by multiple studies – they can decrease anxiety, stress, and insomnia.

Music therapy: Music therapy has mood-lifting effects, and has even been shown to help decrease blood pressure.

Diet/nutrition: Obesity is strongly linked to an increased risk – and a poor prognosis – for several cancer types. In fact, obesity is shaping up to the be cancer’s biggest preventable risk factor. Additionally, certain dietary choices can help ease side effects of treatment including anemia, fatigue, and nausea.

Exercise/fitness: Although physical activity has been shown to help accelerate recovery from cancer treatment, prevent functional decline, and reduce fatigue, many cancer patients aren’t active. Researchers are actively digging into the role exercise can play in cancer treatment and prevention.

Dr. Bao stresses that people with cancer discuss complementary therapies with a doctor specializing in integrative medicine early on. Incorporating evidence-based approaches like these into a patient’s overall care plan can help boost their sense of well-being during and after treatment. The goal is to care for the whole person, rather than just a symptom or disease.

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