As Seen on TV: Acupuncture and Cancer

New research suggests that acupuncture, an ancient Chinese form of healing, is as good or better than modern medicine in helping ease the side effects of breast cancer treatment. Researchers say acupuncture, which has been around for thousands of years, can give cancer patients a wide range of benefits. Dr. Barrie Cassileth, chief of integrative medicine services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, shares her advice and answers common questions about acupuncture for cancer patients.

Want to know if acupuncture might help you?

Acupuncture does not cure disease, but it may very well help many different symptoms. Give it a try. You have little to lose, and if it helps, wonderful. If after 2 or 3 sessions the problem is not better, drop it.

Unsure about what to tell the acupuncturist? Not to worry. Just tell him or her about the problem. The acupuncturist will know what to do. If you have a dissapointing experience with an acupuncturist, try another one, preferably one recommended by a health professional or friend.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I find an acupuncturist who can help cancer patients? What should I look for? Would any acupuncturist be able to do this?

The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) has a Web site to help locate certified practitioners. Physicians who are also licensed acupuncturists typically note this by including "LAc" after their MD. Currently there is no credentialing system for acupuncturists trained in oncology. Some oncologists refer patients to acupuncturists known to specialize in treating cancer patients.

What should I look for?

An acupuncturist who is certified or licensed, and who has training or experience working with cancer patients. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's integrative medicine department offers this training for certified acupuncturists. Similar training may be available at other major integrative medicine centers, as well.

Would any acupuncturist be able to do this?

Treating cancer patients requires special knowledge and experience. It is important to find an acupuncturist who is familiar with cancer diagnoses and related implications for acupuncture treatment. They must also be familiar with standard cancer treatments (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy), their side effects and the precautions that should be taken.

How many sessions are needed over how long a period to know whether the acupuncture is working for me?

It depends on the patient's symptoms and condition. Some patients may obtain significant relief after one or two treatments. However, symptoms, like hot flashes, may take 10 to 20 treatments to realize the maximum benefit. The positive effects of acupuncture appear to be cumulative.

Who is a good candidate for acupuncture?

Anyone with an open mind to the benefits of acupuncture. Acupuncture may not be appropriate for patients who have lymphedema, who are pregnant, or who have conditions that make them prone to infection or bleeding, although the risk here is minimal, as acupuncture needles are sterile and disposable (used only once).

What can acupuncture help patients with?

Acupuncture is used to control pain, fatigue, post-operative or chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting . A recent study showed that acupuncture reduced xerostomia (extreme dry mouth) and skeletomuscular pain and dysfunction experienced by head and neck cancer patients, following radiotherapy. Acupuncture also can help relieve neuropathic pain caused by some types of chemotherapy or by nerve damage.

How long will each session last and what can I expect?

A typical session last about 30-45 minutes. An extra 30 minutes may be required during the first visit. The acupuncturist may ask questions related to the patient's condition, and may also conduct a physical examination. Then, 10 to 20 sterile, single-use needles are carefully inserted at selected points. The acupuncturist may manipulate the needles to enhance the therapeutic effects. Most people report feeling relaxed during and after acupuncture treatment.

How much pain will I experience from the needles?

Acupuncture needles are made of very thin stainless steel. They are much thinner than needles used in hospitals. Most patients do not feel any pain from the needles. If any discomfort or soreness is felt during the treatment, the acupuncturist can adjust the position of the needle.

What is the most common side effect from acupuncture?

Bruises and minor bleeding or irritation at the site of needling, but these problems are very rare.

Is treating chemotherapy-induced hot flashes different from treating the typical hot flashes of menopause?

An experienced acupuncturist usually customizes the treatment according to the patient's symptoms. Chemotherapy-induced hot flashes have a different cause compared to hot flashes associated with menopause. Different acupuncture points may be used for each cause.

For more information on acupuncture and cancer, check out the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine's "An Introduction to Acupuncture."

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