Breast cancer is one of the most feared diseases among American women, in part because its incidence continues to be staggeringly high in the U.S. About 12% of American women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer (the kind that starts in the glands or ducts and spreads into the breast tissue) at one point in their lives. And, although it’s much less common, men can also develop breast cancer: roughly 1 in 1,000 men in the U.S. are diagnosed each year.
As I’ve written before, your chance of surviving most cancers is steadily rising, thanks to better detection and treatment options. But Western medicine is often severely inadequate for alleviating the side effects of cancer treatments. No matter what cancer they’re utilized for, chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation cause a host of painful or otherwise life-disrupting symptoms. These include persistent nausea, mouth sores, hair loss, nervous system disorders, headaches, fatigue, liver damage, digestive distress, and many others. But other than anti-nausea and pain relieving drugs, sufferers do not have many options for easing these symptoms within a Western medical framework.
People who’ve gone through treatment for breast cancer can face additional challenges as a result of their treatment. Many experience uncomfortable hormone-related symptoms, like reproductive difficulty, hot flashes, and excessive perspiration. These patients are increasingly turning to complementary treatments – notably acupuncture – for relief, and studies have shown that they can be hugely beneficial.
Recent research presented to the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology suggests that acupuncture is as effective as conventional drug therapies for relieving the burdensome side effects of breast cancer treatment. The randomized clinical trial showed not only a reduction of symptoms in women treated with acupuncture, but also longer-lasting relief compared to those who went the pharmaceutical route. The study also reports that those who had acupuncture experienced increased energy and vitality. These positive side effects were not once reported by those treated with drugs.
Dr. Eleanor Walker, radiation oncologist and key author of the study, had this to say:
Our study shows that physicians and patients have an additional therapy for something that affects the majority of breast cancer survivors and actually has benefits, as opposed to more side effects. The effect is more durable than a drug commonly used to treat these vasomotor symptoms and, ultimately, is more cost-effective for insurance companies.
Study after study has shown that acupuncture can help breast cancer patients effectively manage their most debilitating symptoms – particularly those that are caused by chemotherapy and radiation. Complementary therapies, in general, have demonstrated an immense capacity to promote feelings of wellbeing, even at this most frightening of times. But there’s another way Chinese medicine can help us understand and fight cancer more effectively.
In The Role of Acupuncture in the Treatment of Breast Cancer, Dr. Friedrich Staebler writes that one of the key contributors to the development of this cancer is a particular type of psychological maladjustment: “emotional factors like anger, frustration, pushing away conflicts and isolating them deep internally…” From a Chinese medicine perspective, the tendency to repress our emotions, rather than find healthy outlets of expression, represents stagnation of the body’s humors. Stagnation results in obstructions, not only of energy, but of bodily fluids. When cellular waste is not removed through the proper circulation of blood and lymph, many experience physical pain. In enduring cases, the lack of vitality in these regions can result in the damming of pathological substances – or, from a Chinese medical lens, the beginning of tumors and masses.
When stress and overwork cause qi to become blocked along vital pathways, or meridians, practitioners of Chinese medicine often observe radial pulse problems relating to congestion in the channels. This means that our emotions can have far reaching effects beyond feelings of stress and overwhelm; they can manifest directly into physical ailments. These ailments may potentially include breast and other cancers, and evidence from Western clinical trials is mounting in favor of this theory.
Anil K. Sood, a professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, writes that stress “can help cancer grow and spread in a number of ways.” One of these ways is its interference in anoikis, a biological process that destroys diseased cells and stops them from spreading. In light of this research, it is possible that acupuncture can provide a vital contribution to breast cancer prevention plans. The results of recent 12-year review of acupuncture treatments for stress (and related problems including chronic anxiety, panics, and phobias) showed that
the volume of literature, consistency of statistically significant results, wide range of conditions treated and use of animal test subjects suggests very real, positive outcomes using a treatment method preferred by a population of individuals who tend to be resistant to conventional medicine.
In short, acupuncture has been found to reduce chronic stress and stave off stress-related diseases, especially in people who do not experience relief with Western treatments. This is why I believe that acupuncture will soon be a key element of breast cancer management. Its potential to alleviate treatment-related symptoms, as well as prevent cancer from spreading in the first place, is profound. Seek out an experienced practitioner of Chinese medicine to learn more about how this ancient therapy may help you with any cancer-related concerns.
Updated September 27, 2016