The stress of a breast cancer diagnosis and the side effects of treatment can make it hard to feel like yourself. Dealing with daily symptoms such as pain, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue can wear you down.
While there are medicines to treat each of one of these problems, it makes sense to try something that works to balance the whole person. Many of my patients have told me that acupuncture has helped with a number of their side effects, including:
- lessening fatigue
- controlling hot flashes
- decreasing nausea
- reducing vomiting
- easing pain
What is acupuncture?
In acupuncture, hair-thin, specially designed, sterile needles are gently inserted into specific points on the skin called acupuncture points or acupoints. Researchers propose that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release natural painkillers and immune system cells. These cells and painkillers then travel to weakened areas of the body and ease symptoms. Acupuncture is done by a trained professional.
Acupuncture is a central part of traditional Chinese medicine. In Chinese medicine, it is believed that a life force called qi (pronounced “chee”) flows through the body along 20 different channels called meridians. Qi consists of two opposite forces called yin and yang. According to Chinese medicine, when yin and yang are balanced, we are well. But when yin and yang are out of balance, qi is blocked and the body can’t function at its best. The goal of acupuncture is to release blocked qi so that it can flow freely.
Acupuncture is a type of complementary medicine. Its goal is to balance the whole person – physically, mentally, and emotionally – while conventional medicine does its work. Researchers are working to better understand the value and benefits of complementary medicine, and acupuncture specifically, in breast and other types of cancer.
Acupuncture and cancer
Studies have shown that acupuncture can ease cancer-related symptoms or stop them from getting worse in many people. Acupuncture also has few side effects and most of them are minor.
Most often, doctors recommend acupuncture to help ease nausea and vomiting, a common side effect of chemotherapy. Using acupuncture to treat nausea and vomiting has the strongest evidence: 20 years of research supports this use.
While research on using acupuncture to ease other treatment-related symptoms isn’t as strong, it is promising:
- Studies have found positive and lasting benefits when acupuncture was used to treat hot flashes.
- About 66% of studies on acupuncture found that the technique helped ease pain and numbness in the hands and feet (peripheral neuropathy) caused by chemotherapy.
- Small studies have found acupuncture eases cancer pain, particularly when added to standard care.
- Studies involving about 800 people showed that acupuncture helped ease fatigue, especially when used with heat. This is called moxibustion, which I’ll talk more about in a bit.
- Some small studies showed that acupuncture helped people sleep better.
- One study of people diagnosed with advanced-stage breast or ovarian cancer found acupuncture helped improved quality of life for nearly all of the participants.
Who performs acupuncture?
There are many accredited training programs in the United States for certified acupuncturists who aren’t medical doctors.
- Training requirements for certified acupuncturists who are not medical doctors:
- Training: In the United States, an acupuncturist should complete between 2,000 and 3,000 hours of training in a master’s degree program accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
- Certification: For U.S. certification, an acupuncturist must pass board exams given by the National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Check the NCCAOM website’s searchable practitioner directory to find a certified acupuncturist in your area.
It’s becoming more common for medical doctors such as anesthesiologists and neurologists to be trained in acupuncture.
- Training requirements for medical doctors: In most states, medical doctors must have 200 to 300 hours of acupuncture training in a program approved by the American Board of Medical Acupuncture (ABMA). For a list of board-certified physicians who practice acupuncture in the U.S., visit the ABMA website.
If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and want to try acupuncture, be sure that your practitioner has treated people with breast cancer.
What to expect
If you’d like to try acupuncture, here’s what will probably happen at the session.
The practitioner will ask you about your medical history, your symptoms, and any medications you’re taking, including herbal supplements. The acupuncturist will also inspect your tongue and take your pulse in several places on your body. Based on this information, the practitioner will decide which acupoints to target.
Then the practitioner will insert the appropriate number of needles into the acupoints on your skin. Along the back or behind the ear are common sites, but each person’s situation is unique.
Acupuncturists use very thin, solid, stainless steel, sterile needles. Most people feel slight or no pain as the needles are inserted. Needles are only inserted into the top layer of your skin and are never inserted directly into any organs. The needles are left in place for at least 30 minutes and then removed and discarded.
Depending on your situation, the acupuncturist also may gently twist the needles or use other techniques, including moxibustion. Moxibustion means the acupuncturist also applies heat to the acupoints, often by burning herbs atop the needles.
The effects of acupuncture are different for each person. You may feel relaxed or you may feel energized. Right after the first treatment, some people feel spacy or slightly disoriented, but this usually doesn’t last long. After treatment, it’s best to avoid doing things that require you to be extra alert, such as driving, mowing the lawn, or cooking.
In the days after treatment, your symptoms may get worse for a day or two, or you may notice changes in your appetite, sleep, or mood before you being to feel improvement.
A few insurance programs cover acupuncture. It’s worth asking if you’re covered.
- Acupuncture is a complementary therapy. That means that it’s used along with traditional Western medicine. Don’t skip your doctor visits because you’re going to an acupuncturist. I can’t say it strongly enough: There is NO evidence that acupuncture can directly treat cancer or any other disease.
- Make sure your practitioner is certified by the NCCAOM and has a state license. Ask if the acupuncturist has training and experience with treating your symptoms and if he or she has treated people with breast cancer.
- It’s very important that you tell your breast cancer doctor and treatment team that you’re receiving acupuncture or any other complementary or holistic medicine.
- It’s standard practice for acupuncturists to use disposable, single-use, sterile needles and to swab acupuncture areas with alcohol or another disinfectant before using the needles. Infection is always a risk, but the risk is higher if the acupuncturist fails to follow this process. If you notice signs of infection such as painful swelling or tenderness after treatment, see your regular doctor.
- People with certain conditions, including low white blood cell or platelet counts, should be especially cautious about trying acupuncture. Your risk of infection is higher with these conditions.
- If you’ve had lymph nodes removed from under your arm during breast cancer surgery or biopsy, you should not have needles inserted into that arm because of a risk of lymphedema.
- Although acupuncture sometimes also includes herbal supplements, you should NOT take herbal supplements if you’re being treated with chemotherapy. Herbal supplements can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
Have you tried acupuncture? If so, let us know whether it eased specific symptoms for you.