Acupuncture and Cancer Care


Physical & Sexual Health
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Why Adding More Needles to Cancer Care Could Be a Good Thing.

Needles — it’s not exactly a patient’s favorite subject. In fact, some people suffer from “needle phobia” and won’t step foot into a doctor’s office or hospital because of them. Unfortunately, cancer treatments and surveillance often require a significant number of unpleasant pokes and prods. But while needles are often not a favorite subject among both patients and non-patients alike, research is showing there may be significant health benefits to facing the fear when it comes to acupuncture, a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that uses needles to stimulate the body.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an ancient practice originating in China. The main goal of acupuncture is to balance energy (also called “Qi”) within the body by adding more energy when needed, or by removing energy if there’s too much. According to TCM, just as veins allow blood to flow throughout the body, there are other pathways invisible to our eye, called meridians, that transport energy throughout the body. Along these pathways, there are approximately 350 specific locations on the body (acupuncture points) that can be used to access the body’s energy. By stimulating these points, one is able to adjust the amount of energy, thus bringing balance and equilibrium to the body. 

What Is an Acupuncturist?

An acupuncturist is a specially-trained professional who delivers acupuncture treatments. They either have a master’s or doctoral degree to practice in the United States. In addition, they are required to take and pass a national exam, and complete a specific number of continuing education units to maintain their professional certification and/or license.

Today, acupuncture is considered a form of integrative medicine or complementary alternative medicine (CAM). It’s used around the world for a variety of reasons – including the management of pain, to help with fertility, to improve sleep, and more.

Have the Benefits of Acupuncture for Cancer Patients Been Researched?

Acupuncture has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as effective in treating certain health conditions. As it relates to cancer, acupuncture has been shown to help patients manage side effects.

What Happens at an Acupuncture Appointment?

During an acupuncture appointment, an acupuncturist may ask a variety of questions regarding your health and energy levels. They may look at your tongue, feel your pulse, and ask about your bowel habits (hooray!). The acupuncturist is assessing various health attributes to make sure you get the best treatment for that day.

Your acupuncturist will use sterile, one-time use needles for your treatment. These needles don’t go too deeply into the skin, only about a quarter of an inch. Depending on the type of treatment you receive, your acupuncturist may leave the needles in for 30 minutes or more while you relax, or they might remove them quickly. 

In addition to needles, acupuncturists are often trained to help patients through other methods that may include: 

  • Moxibustion (or moxa)
  • Massage
  • Acupressure – good option for those who suffer from needle phobia! 
  • Chinese herbal medicine 

How Do I Find an Acupuncturist?

Talk to your care team to see if they can recommend an acupuncturist in your area who is comfortable working with cancer patients. Visit the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture to search for an acupuncturist with the National Certification Commission in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Most states require practitioners to be licensed by this board.

Survivor's Story

Allison Rosen, diagnosed with stage II colorectal cancer at age 32, shares her acupuncture experience.

Q. What were the barriers you faced when making the decision to get acupuncture treatment?

A. The barriers I faced were mainly related to cost. I didn’t know if my insurance would cover it because it was in the Integrated Medicine department. After investigating, I found out it was not covered, but I found a clinic to do it that was not overly expensive. The positive effects of acupuncture outweighed the cost of it, so I budgeted for it when planning my spending for each month! 

Q. What did you seek acupuncture for, and what were the benefits that you noticed (if any)? 

A. I sought out acupuncture for help controlling pain and GI-related issues related to my treatment. I was weaning off pain medicine, and incorporating acupuncture into my treatment plan helped make the process easier. I took pain medicine earlier in the treatment process, and it was very hard to get off of it. I found acupuncture as an alternative way to deal with lingering pain from multiple surgeries. I also had some neuropathy issues as a result of my treatment and acupuncture helped with this as well. I always tried to avoid unneeded medication if there was an alternative, and acupuncture helped me eliminate various prescription drugs.