Acupuncture provides real relief for side effects of breast cancer treatments
By Regina Touhey Serkin and Naomi Alson
While pharmacological and other advances in the treatment of certain types of breast cancer have proven highly effective in halting the disease and preventing its recurrence, some of the side effects of those treatments have caused many patients to miss their treatments or stop their therapy altogether. In those situations, the ancient practice of acupuncture can play a pivotal role in controlling those side effects and keeping patients on their medications, improving the likelihood of successful outcomes.
For breast cancer patients and many others experiencing the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, acupuncture has been shown by strong supporting studies to alleviate pain, neuropathy and other symptoms, including fatigue, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, hot flashes, vertigo, depression and sleeping problems.
Two-thirds of all breast cancers in women are described as “hormone receptor-positive,” a type of cancer that is fueled by estrogen. The treatment for it is to lower estrogen levels with a class of drugs called aromatase inhibitors, which block the effects of estrogen to prevent a recurrence of the disease. They have become a mainstay of breast cancer treatment. The downside is that up to 50 percent of women who take the medications experience significant, arthritis-like joint pain and stiffness. As a result, some women miss or abandon their treatment.
And that’s where acupuncture has proven most effective – alleviating symptoms in a way that encourages patients to continue life-saving breast cancer treatments.
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine based on the belief that vital energy known as qi flows through the body along a network of meridians or pathways which affect a person’s spiritual, emotional, physical and mental state. If those paths are blocked, almost like a physiological traffic jam, the body reacts negatively, often in the form of pain, nausea and other dysfunction. Once those paths are unblocked, symptoms can be relieved or even eliminated.
Acupuncturists apply needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments to one or more places on the skin, known as acupuncture points, where the energy flow has stagnated. These points stimulate the brain, releasing neurochemicals and hormones, creating deep relaxation and easing pain and dysfunction.
Acupuncture isn’t just about the needles. Acupuncture practitioners are trained to consult with patients and work closely with them to understand the full nature and extent of their symptoms. In each session, the acupuncturist will physically examine the patient and ask a full battery of questions about the patient’s level of stress, pain, appetite, sleep experience, bowel and bladder issues and other symptoms. Rather than simply ask them how bad the pain is, the acupuncturists will have the patient actually finger point to the area of greatest discomfort, and that alone can guide where the treatment can be focused. Rather than simply ask how good or bad their appetite has been, the acupuncturist will ask the patient about specific food aversions or cravings, even having them describe the taste in their mouths. With matters of the bowels and the bladder, too, the practitioner will seek specific details about timing, frequency, consistency and color – all to get a clearer sense of what’s happening in the patient’s body and where.
In the world of cancer treatment, including breast cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in women, the focus of acupuncture is on managing side effects and helping the body process the toxicity of treatments.
Acupuncture is just one of a growing array of integrative therapies that have become a standard part of cancer treatment programs nationally, including exercise, nutrition counseling, yoga, meditation, massage, reiki and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Regina Touhey Serkin, a Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and Naomi Alson, who holds a Master’s in Acupuncture and is a Diplomate of Chinese Herbology, are licensed acupuncturists and private practitioners affiliated with the BMC Cancer Center of Berkshire Health Systems.