Acupuncture has been shown to be an incredibly helpful therapy for patients during and after various cancer treatments (i.e. chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, hormonal therapy, etc.) Studies have demonstrated efficacy in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, hot flashes, muscle and joint pains, nausea and many other symptoms. Increasingly there are data suggesting that there may be beneficial effects on immune and inflammatory physiology.
As an oncologist (and medical acupuncturist), I often recommend acupuncture to my patients. It is very important that the acupuncturist be experienced in working with cancer patients, as there are numerous important safety issues to keep in mind. For example:
- Certain cancer therapies may increase the risk of infections and bleeding, therefore acupuncture may not be appropriate during these periods of higher risk (i.e. low white blood cell counts, low platelet counts.)
- Radiation therapy can cause local skin reactions. These areas should be avoided during acupuncture.
- Surgery and radiation therapy can increase the risk of swelling in the arms and legs (“lymphedema”), so placing needles in the at-risk extremity should be avoided.
In attempts to address this aspect of care, acupuncture schools and academic medical centers are incorporating acupuncture oncology education in their curriculum. The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Service has trained over 1,000 acupuncturists world-wide in an excellent acupuncture program focusing on the important issues in providing care for patients with cancer. This program is now available via an accredited online format (click here.)
Many acupuncturists combine herbal/botanical therapies with acupuncture as a component of their therapeutic regimen. Before you take any of these products, I recommend that you first discuss this with your oncologist or surgeon. It is known that some herbal/botanical ingredients may cause untoward interactions with conventional therapies (i.e. chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, immune therapy, etc.), increasing the potential for toxicity, bleeding problems or decreasing the effectiveness of systemic therapies. Discussions with an integrative oncologist may also be helpful.