Acupuncture Helps Ease Side Effects and Symptoms of Some Cancers
Recent studies have shown that acupuncture can help control a number of symptoms and side effects — such as:
- Pain or Chronic Pain
- Chronic Fatigue
- Dry mouth
- Loss of range of motion
— associated with a variety of cancers and their treatments. 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 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 recent study [PubMed Abstract] 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[PubMed Abstract] 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 Coumadin® 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 [PubMed Abstract], 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.
"Acupuncture can control a number of distressing symptoms, such as shortness of breath, anxiety and depression, chronic fatigue, pain, neuropathy, and osteoarthritis."
Barrie Cassileth, PhD, Chief, Integrative Medicine Service, MSKCC