A growing body of research from all over the world suggests that acupuncture can have a wide range of positive effects on cancer patients, from easing nausea to controlling the hot flashes that can result from cancer treatments.
Much of the research in this rapidly expanding field has been performed on people undergoing treatment for lung cancer. Why? Because lung cancer is among the deadliest forms of this disease, as well as one of the most common. In the United States, about a quarter of all cancer deaths are from lung cancer. It is the second most prevalent form in both men and women, and according to the American Cancer Society, “more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.” It is vital that we develop and utilize better interventions, from detection to post-treatment therapies, for this devastating illness.
In September of 2007, the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) gave the first official nod to acupuncture as a viable complementary strategy in the treatment of lung cancer. The ACCP published a list of evidence-based guidelines recommending acupuncture for the symptoms of lung cancer, as well as the side effects of the chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery frequently used to treat it. The most common of these are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle weakness
- Dry mouth
- Breathing problems
- Depression and other forms of psychological distress
In 2013, the ACCP published its most recent guidelines for diagnosing, managing, and treating lung cancer based on up-to-date research and clinical observations. As it did in 2007, the College continues to support the use of acupuncture for lung cancer patients. In particular, it recommends acupuncture (and even self-directed acupressure) for both acute and ongoing nausea related to chemotherapy.
Acupuncture may also have other benefits for lung cancer patients. It has shown significant potential in treating dyspnea, for example. This breathing difficulty is one of the most prevalent and distressing symptoms experienced by lung cancer patients. Dyspnea can range in severity from a mild shortness of breath to a feeling that it is impossible to get enough air into your lungs. For most, this is a scary and highly frustrating problem. Luckily, a study published earlier this year found “a statistically and clinically significant improvement in dyspnea” with acupuncture treatments, and noted that “nearly 80% of patients reported some improvement in their dyspnea” at follow-up.
This is great news, because current Western medical treatments are increasingly inadequate. Doctors will usually prescribe low doses of opioids to treat dyspnea, and this option carries a host of worrying side effects, including chronic constipation, fatigue, nausea, and dependence. This study showed not only that acupuncture can be a useful (and virtually side effect-free) therapy for dyspnea, but also that it appears to ease pain and promote relaxation.
Similar results were found in a 2013 study published in the journal Current Oncology. The researchers wrote that the trial was the first of its kind
to demonstrate that acupuncture may be an effective approach for improving symptoms–in particular, pain and well-being–in a lung cancer population. Acupuncture is a safe and minimally invasive modality, and it may have a particularly useful role in patients undergoing anticancer treatment–such as those who constituted the greater proportion of the patients in this study.
While more research is needed for us to understand exactly how acupuncture works in Western medical terminology, it is clear that the steadily growing patient interest in trying it out is fully justified.
Acupuncture is being offered at more and more hospitals and cancer treatment centers, so if you are currently undergoing treatment for lung cancer, it is worth bringing up with your healthcare team. Otherwise, check out my guide to finding a qualified and experienced acupuncturist. Make sure that the practitioner you choose helps you feel at ease, and that you are completely confident in their expertise.
Updated October 25, 2016