Breast Cancer Treatment Side Effects: Can Acupuncture Help?
You’ve been through every drug the oncologist has in his or her bag of tricks, yet nothing has managed to quell those debilitating side effects—of chemo, radiation, or hormone therapy.
Have you considered complementary therapy? Acupuncture is steadily gaining ground as an effective treatment for breast cancer side effects. Read our acupuncture FAQs, and see if it might be right for you.
Q. I’ve heard that acupuncture might help me with the nausea I’m feeling from chemo. Could you tell me what it is?
A. Acupuncture is a common practice in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), where it’s been used for thousands of years to alleviate allergies, anxiety, migraine headaches, depression, and other chronic conditions. Researchers have found that, for some women with breast cancer, it helps reduce fatigue, hot flashes, nausea and vomiting from chemo, and pain.
The traditional theory behind acupuncture is that vital energy flows through the body along meridians, which are connected by acupuncture points; there are over 1000 acupuncture points on the body. When the energy is blocked for some reason, the body becomes ill. Acupuncture opens these blockages so that the body can function normally again.
Western scientific theory holds that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system, releasing natural painkillers and immune system cells. Researchers also believe it may slightly alter brain chemistry, affecting the part of the central nervous system related to sensation, blood flow, and body temperature.
Q. I’ve heard acupuncture involves needles. Sounds painful. Is it?
A. No, it shouldn’t be, when performed correctly. Acupuncturists insert very thin stainless steel needles into the top layer of your skin, no deeper; you’ll feel only a tiny bit of pain (if that) when the needle goes in, and nothing once it’s in place. Needles are inserted at the point the practitioner determines will release blocked energy. Sometimes the needles are heated, or receive a small electric charge; again, it doesn’t hurt.
Q. So, what’s the treatment like?
A. You’ll probably be asked to complete a health history beforehand. And at the start of the appointment, the acupuncturist will ask you a lot of questions, covering everything from your diet and lifestyle to sleep patterns, food allergies, and possible stressors. (S)he will also examine you physically, focusing on your face, voice, and tongue; and feeling the pulse points in your wrists. All of this helps determine the precise acupuncture sites in which to insert the needles.
A typical treatment consists of 6 to 12 needles, inserted for 20 to 30 minutes, though the time may vary from a few seconds to an hour. Afterwards, you may feel very relaxed, even disoriented; the practitioner may warn you against driving right away. You may also feel energized. You may see a worsening of symptoms for a few days before things start to get better; this is normal.
Q. Is acupuncture really safe? Is it regulated by the government, or…?
A. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) endorses acupuncture for the treatment of a variety of conditions. And the FDA classifies acupuncture needles as “medical devices.” Americans spend over $500 million a year on acupuncture treatments; and many insurance companies will cover it. All of this seems to indicate that acupuncture is a form of treatment that’s generally endorsed by the mainstream, e.g., the government and insurance industry.
That said, you should watch out for yourself, as you would with any treatment you’re using for the first time. There’s the possibility of infection; you should be sure the practitioner is using new, disposable needles, removed from a sealed package. The site of the insertion should be swabbed with alcohol or a sterile wipe.
As a breast cancer patient undergoing treatment, you shouldn’t have needles placed in the arm on your affected side, to avoid the risk of lymphedema. You should also be aware that you may be at increased risk of infection, if you’re in the middle of chemo. Also, if you’re doing chemo, refuse any herbal supplements the acupuncturist may offer; they may interfere with the chemo’s effectiveness.
Q. How do I go about finding an acupuncturist?
A. First, always, ALWAYS check with your oncologist before trying acupuncture. Once (s)he gives you the go-ahead, (s)he or his/her oncology nurse may be able to recommend an acupuncturist to you. If not, the American Board of Medical Acupuncture offers a list of board-certified physicians who offer acupuncture. Check out the ABMA Web site to locate one near you.
In addition, acupuncturists who are NOT medical doctors must pass board exams offered by the National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. To locate a non-medical certified acupuncturist near you, visit the NCCAOM’s Web site.
Q. One last question: Is acupressure the same as acupuncture?
A. While they’re based on the same theory of energy flow and acu-points, they rely on different treatments. Acupressure doesn’t involve needles; instead, the acupressurist uses his/her fingers, palms, and/or elbows to deliver pressure to pre-determined points. Since the skin isn’t pierced with a needle, there’s less chance of infection or other side effects; in addition, there’s no need to remove any clothing. On the other hand, since acupressure is less precise, it may not be quite as effective. That said, some chemo patients say acupressure, delivered through a special bracelet, relieves their nausea.