Acupuncture and Cancer

            Using acupuncture for managing the side effects of cancer treatments as a complementary treatment in one’s oncology care is helpful and extremely supportive at all stages of their cancer journey. Acupuncturists often work diligently in collaboration with cancer patients and their physicians to provide the best and most effective treatment possible. As of 2018, according to the National Cancer institute, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States.  Evidence suggests that acupuncture can be helpful for managing some of the symptoms associated with cancer treatment.

What is Cancer?

            In a nutshell, cancer is a collection of related diseases, and in all types, some or most of the body’s cells divide without stopping therefore spreading into the surrounding tissues. Normal cell growth involves cells dividing to form new cells when the body needs them, and when the cells become old or damaged, new ones take their place. However, with cancer, as the cells become more abnormal, those old or damaged cells that would normally be replaced by new cells, end up surviving instead, and the new cells that form are not needed. Those extra cells divide and form growths called tumors.

Types of tumors:

  • Solid tumors – many forms of cancer take on these types of tumors which are masses of tissue.

  • Non-solid tumors – these types of tumors, usually seen in cancers of the blood such as leukemias, generally are not solid tumors.

Malignant vs. Benign Tumors:

  • Malignant – These types of tumors are cancerous, and are malignant meaning they can spread to or invade tissues that are nearby. As these tumors grow, cancer cells can break off and spread to distant places in the body through the patient’s blood or lymph system forming new tumors. Even if removed, these tumors have the potential to grow back.

  • Benign – These types of tumors do not spread or invade nearby tissues. Once removed, these usually do not grow back, but can be normally quite large. Most benign tumors throughout the body can be removed and dealt with, but benign brain tumors can be life threatening.

What makes cancer cells so different from normal cells?  There are two major differences. One, cancer cells do not mature into very distinct cell types with specific functions, but normal cells do. It is for this reason that cancer cells continue to divide without stopping. Two, cancer cells can ignore your body’s signals to tell cells to stop dividing. Additionally, cancer cells can influence normal cells in an effort to feed a tumor with oxygen and nutrients which they need to grow, an area known as microenvironment. Lastly, because of their nature of often evading the immune system, some cancer cells are able to “hide” from the immune system.

What Categories of Cancer Are There?

            There are more than 100 types of cancer, and are usually named for the organs or tissues where the cancer forms (ex: lung cancer starts in the cells of the lung, and brain cancer starts in the cells of the brain). Additionally, the type of cancer may also be described by the type of cell that they are formed in such as squamous or epithelial cell.

Categories of Cancer:

  • Carcinoma – This is the most common type of cancer, and formed by cells that cover the inside & outside surfaces of the body called epithelial cells. These types of carcinomas which begin in different epithelial cells have specific names:
    • Adenocarcinoma – produce fluids or mucus. Examples of this type are cancers of the breast, colon, and prostate.

    • Basal Cell – begins in the lower layer of a person’s outer layer of skin (epidermis).

    • Squamous Cell – these line many organs including the intestines, lungs, stomach, bladder, and kidneys, and are sometimes called epidermoid carcinomas.

    • Transitional Cell – this forms in a tissue called the urothelium or transitional epithelium which is made up of many layers of epithelial cells. Some examples of transitional cell carcinoma are bladder, kidney, and ureter.

  • Sarcoma – these are cancers that form in the soft tissues and bones which include muscle, blood vessels, fat, tendons & ligaments, and lymph vessels. Common types of sarcomas are osteosarcoma (the most common type), leiomyosarcoma, malignant fibrous histiocytoma, dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, Kaposi sarcoma, and liposarcoma.

  • Leukemia – these cancers begin in the blood-forming tissue of bone marrow, and do not form solid tumors. Large amounts of abnormal white blood cells build up in the bone marrow and blood overwhelming normal blood cells. Lower levels of normal blood cells make it difficult for the body to control bleeding, fight infections, and get oxygen to the tissues.

  • Lymphoma – cancer that begins in lymphocytes (T cells or B cells). These cells build up in the lymph vessels and lymph nodes as well as other organs of the body. The two major types of lymphoma are Hodgkin, which usually form from B cells, and Non-Hodgkin, which form from B cells or T cells, lymphoma.

  • Multiple Myeloma – cancer that begins in plasma cells. Abnormal plasma cells, called myeloma cells, build up in the bone marrow and form tumors.

  • Melanoma – cancer that begins in cells that make melanin (the pigment which gives skin its color). Most form on the skin, but can also form in other pigmented tissues such as the eye.

Scientists are learning more and more each day about cancer, and the many different types that there are, and how they affect the body. The key way that acupuncture comes into play is with the signs and symptoms associated with cancer as well as the side effects of common treatments of cancer such as chemotherapy and radiation.

General signs & symptoms associated with cancer:

  • Weight changes (unintended loss or gain)

  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits

  • Persistent cough or trouble breathing

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Fatigue

  • Skin changes (yellowing, darkening or redness, sores that won’t heal, changes to existing moles)

  • Lump or area of thickening that can be felt under the skin

  • Hoarseness

  • Persistent, unexplained fevers or night sweats

  • Persistent, unexplained muscle or joint pain

  • Persistent indigestion or discomfort after eating

  • Unexplained bleeding or bruising

Along with symptoms of the cancer itself, there are a slew of side effects that often go hand in hand with battling cancer, all of which acupuncture can successfully treat complementary to standard treatments for cancer to help manage.

Acupuncture and Cancer Treatment

            Acupuncture to aid in cancer treatment can be beneficial in a number of ways. The treatment of cancer along with the illness itself can cause many complications.

Complications of cancer treatment:

  • Pain

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Diarrhea or constipation

  • Chemical changes in the body

  • Weight loss

  • Brain & nervous system problems

  • Immune system reactions

Acupuncture may be a helpful treatment for all of these cancer-related issues in addition to other common issues such as dry-mouth, hot flashes, insomnia, and peripheral neuropathy. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America even employ acupuncturists to help alleviate treatment related side-effects, and keep in regular communication with the entire care team.

Five ways acupuncture can help in cancer treatment:

  • Reduce nausea, vomiting, & fatigue from chemotherapy – There is strong evidence that acupuncture is effective in these areas of cancer care. A meta-analysis in 2017 including 1,327 patients, was done on the Effects of Acupuncture on Cancer-Related Fatigue, and concluded acupuncture to be an effective fatigue management, and also advised it to be recommended as a beneficial alternative. Additionally, a study done in 2019 on the Effect of Acupuncture in Different Time on Nausea & Vomiting Induced by Chemotherapy of Lung Cancer found acupuncture to have a positive effect on the prevention and treatment of nausea & vomiting.

  • Pain Relief – acupuncture can help reduce cancer pain as well as from surgery. It can also help reduce the amount of pain medications needed therefore helping some of the side effects that go along with those pain medications. A meta-analysis done in 2019 including 1,111 patients, Clinical Evidence for Association of Acupuncture & Acupressure with Improved Cancer Pain, concluded that acupuncture and/or acupressure was “significantly associated with reduced cancer pain and decreased use of analgesics” meaning a considerable reduction in opioid use and pain intensity.

  • Dry Mouth & Hot Flashes – These are two very common symptoms in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Acupuncture has been proven to aid in both of these conditions. A study done in 2011, Randomized Controlled Trial of Acupuncture for Prevention of Radiation-Induced Xerostomia (dry mouth) Among Patients with Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma found acupuncture given with radiotherapy reduced dry mouth considerably and improved quality of life. Additionally, a meta-analysis from 2014, Effects of Acupuncture on Menopause-Related Symptoms concluded that acupuncture “improves hot flash frequency and severity, menopause-related symptoms, and quality of life.”

  • Improve Digestion – radiation treatment can lead to swelling and pain in the mouth and/or throat which makes it difficult to swallow, and some patients even lose their sense of taste. Acupuncture can decrease these side effects, and help restore appetite.

  • Stress Management – acupuncture offers ongoing physical, mental, and emotional support. Being that acupuncture stimulates the body’s natural healing abilities, acupuncture allows certain hormones to be released to the brain taking the body out of fight or flight mode, and bring the patient back to a homeostatic state allowing them to feel less stressed or anxious. A meta-analysis in 2018, Acupuncture & Electhroacupuncture for Anxiety Disorders, found scientific evidence that acupuncture for anxiety has effective results with fewer side effects than standard western medical treatment for this condition.

There are many benefits to acupuncture for cancer, but these are the main side-effects that most cancer patients seek acupuncture for, and usually later come to find that it treats much more.

How Does Acupuncture Work for Cancer?

            When the hair-thin needles are inserted in the proper acupuncture points for your cancer treatment, several things, from a scientific point of view, happen which allows acupuncture to work. Acupuncture improves circulation allowing for better flow of neurotransmitters to do the work needed on our brain. Acupuncture releases many “feel-good” hormones which allow the body to self-heal.

Hormones released during acupuncture treatment:

  • Endorphins – the body’s natural pain reliever produced in response to stress or discomfort.

  • Serotonin – a neurotransmitter which helps regulate your mood as well as many other things like digestion, sleep, memory, learning ability, and appetite all of which can be effects of cancer & cancer treatment.

  • Dopamine – a neurotransmitter and chemical messenger that helps regulate many bodily functions.

Acupuncture treatment involves placing hair-thin needles at strategic points in order to achieve the results needed for the cancer patient. The needles are normally left in anywhere from 20-40 minutes depending on what is being treated, and a licensed acupuncturist will do a full medical history and consultation prior to selecting the points used. They will have also been in contact potentially with your physician to give the best and most collaborative care possible.

Acupuncture points for cancer treatment related symptoms:

  • KD18 – for vomiting

  • LU1 – for vomiting

  • GV11 – for anxiety/stress

  • GV24 – for anxiety/stress

  • HT7 – for insomnia

  • T1 Huatuo – cancer in the bone marrow

  • T2 Huatuo – cancer, chronic fatigue

  • T4 Huatuo – breast cancer

There are more than 300 acupuncture points located all over the body, and the beauty of acupuncture is that there is no one “go-to” point. Each individual is looked at for their specific circumstances and symptoms, making each treatment completely unique and individualized.

Acupuncture for Cancer

            Acupuncture for cancer side effects works, and is one that is becoming more well-known, especially in the treatment of nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy. In 2011, there was an article, Acupuncture May Stimulate Anticancer Immunity via Activation of Natural Killer Cells, which outlines acupuncture’s potential ability to increase natural killer cells eliminating cancer cells. The review concluded that from the findings, the “acupuncture immune-enhancement hypothesis” was produced. Essentially, it proposes that “acupuncture enhances the ability of the immune system to more actively eliminate malignant cells by increasing the ability of NK (natural killer) cells to kill cancer cells.” It goes on to say that acupuncture increases cross talk between neurotransmitters and the immune system. This hypothesis will provide a focal point for future discussion and research for anticancer immune functions.

It is important to note that if you do have some form of cancer, to be sure and speak with both your licensed acupuncturist and oncologist to find the best treatment plan for you. If you have a low white blood cell count, or low platelet count, it may be suggested to have your acupuncture treatment either before or after chemotherapy or radiation treatment depending on your numbers. As always, be sure to keep in good communication with both your licensed acupuncturist and oncologist to make your healing journey as smooth as possible.


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