By Mary Vincent, L.Ac.

One of the most studied aspects of acupuncture is its ability to decrease the severity of many of the side effects of chemotherapy. There are many different types of chemotherapy medications, and a wide range of short and long term effects, some which can become severe enough to be debilitating and dramatically decrease the patient’s quality of life. It’s become quite common these days for oncologists to recommend acupuncture as an adjunct therapy in helping patients control the side effects of their cancer treatments. Many hospitals now have Integrative Medicine centers that make acupuncture easily available to their patients (many service both inpatients and outpatients), and we see a number of people here at BCA who have been directly referred by their oncologists. The most common side effects we help treat include:

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea or constipation

  • Joint pain or and/or general body achiness

  • Anxiety

  • Extreme fatigue–can often last long past chemotherapy treatments ends

  • Peripheral neuropathy–numbness, weakness, and/or pain, typically in the hands and feet, can also last long after chemotherapy ends

  • Low Blood Counts-while we do provide treatments to help support immune function and keep blood counts up, we do not advise coming for treatment if your ANC is less than 500. If your ANC is over 500, but still your counts are still very low, we would recommend a mask (and have them available at the clinic should you need one).

Of all the side effects listed above the most common is nausea and vomiting, and therefore is the one most often studied in relation to acupuncture by western medicine. There have been multiple studies over the past 20 years, and the results consistently show a positive effect from acupuncture and it’s ability to decrease nausea and vomiting (including during randomized, controlled studies). The National Institute of Cancer has a web page that provides a good, comprehensive list of many studies done not only on the effects of acupuncture on nausea and vomiting, but also on the majority of side effects listed above. A link to that page can be found here:

http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/acupuncture/healthprofessional/page5

When you come in for your acupuncture treatment, you will be treated with acupuncture points that directly relate to the signs and symptoms you present with, and in relation to what is happening with your specific chemotherapy treatments. We will set up a treatment plan that best complements the western medical care you are receiving. This may include weekly or biweekly treatments, or several days in a row right after receiving your chemotherapy. There are many different types of chemotherapy medications, and your treatment plan will depend on whether your medications cause constant or intermittent discomfort. Herbs are only occasionally recommended for our patients receiving chemotherapy, and are suggested based on the specifics of your individual case.