Cancer has always been with us. The first written reference to it dates back to 1600 BC, when breast cancer was described in an ancient Egyptian papyrus. Chinese medicine has been used to treat cancer for thousands of years, using a different lens from Western medicine’s historic focus on the eradication of unhealthy cancer cells. Instead of focusing solely on proliferating malignant cells, practitioners of Chinese medicine assess their patient’s physical and psychological state as well as their lifestyle when choosing a healing strategy. Chinese medicine also looks to diagnose the current underlying disorganization and chaos within the body that makes it unable to maintain normal, healthy function. Remarkably, this ancient approach is now being adopted as part of modern medicine’s most cutting-edge technologies, which are increasingly focused on an integrative approach that strengthens the body’s own defense mechanisms.
It has been well documented that by integrating Chinese medicine into their cancer-treating regimen, patients diagnosed with a wide range of malignancies have been able to ease the side effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy; to significantly reduce the pain caused by both their tumors and their surgeries; to improve their appetite and digestion; and to relieve the stress and emotional burden caused by their fear and grief. Importantly, the use of acupuncture and Chinese herbs has also been shown to boost the immune system, providing a more robust response for the treatment of their cancer and protection against its return.
Chinese Medicine’s View of Cancer
Chinese medicine views diseases in terms of imbalance, and cancer represents a level of imbalance and functional dysregulation. As a result, its treatment requires strategies that start with an understanding of a patient’s constitution— bian zheng — and the current pattern of the disharmony of proper physiology leading to the disease process — bian bing. Once these patterns are identified, the appropriate combination of acupuncture and herbal therapy are selected to make the constitution more balanced and stronger while at the same time rectifying the imbalances that allow the disease to proliferate.
These treatments are not meant to replace modern medicine but to complement them: while oncologists work to kill or remove cancer cells, practitioners of Chinese medicine work to restore the body’s health, helping patients to respond optimally to their treatment protocols and recovery. Acupuncture and the use of Chinese herbs have been shown to improve outcomes and provide patients with a better quality of life through the reduction of symptoms and the strengthening and rebalancing of their bodies and minds.
Acupuncture and Cancer Treatments
In addition to surgical removal of tumors, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the most commonly used medical treatments for cancer. Though effective, these protocols can produce a long list of adverse side effects, including nausea and vomiting, weakness, pain, and fatigue. Acupuncture used in conjunction with radiation, surgery and chemo is very effective in bolstering patient well-being while reducing the side effects of these therapies. An increasing number of hospital systems and oncologists are recognizing acupuncture’s benefits, encouraging and even coordinating acupuncture treatments as adjuvant therapy for patients undergoing radiation or chemotherapy.
- Studies have shown that the use of acupuncture in cancer patients can relieve chronic pain as well as the strongest pain medications. They do so by stimulating nerve fibers that send impulses to the spinal cord. This action leads to the release of endorphins and cortisol that block pain messages, and do so without the adverse side effects that pain medications can cause.
- Acupuncture has consistently been proven effective in its ability to relieve nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, following both chemotherapy and surgery. One study conducted in 1989 showed that 78% of post-operative patients treated with acupuncture had no nausea compared with only 32% of a non-treated control group.
- The use of acupuncture during radiation and chemotherapy has been shown to significantly increase white blood cell counts and other immune responses. The number of natural killer (NK) cells have also been shown to increase.
- Both radiation therapy and chemotherapy have significant negative impacts on appetite and digestion, but the use of acupuncture has been shown to decrease these adverse effects, reducing swelling in the mouth and throat, restoring appetite and alleviating constipation.
- Acupuncture has been proven to relieve anxiety and stress, as well as providing patients with improvements in their ability to sleep.
Chinese Herbal Medicine
Chinese herbs are prescribed in combinations based upon the individual patient’s diagnosis and needs, and have been shown to offer significant benefits, including both improved immune function and symptom relief. The combination of Chinese herbal medicine with conventional medical treatments provides a counter to the latter’s adverse effects while boosting its potential.
Many of the herbs most commonly used in Chinese medicine have been the subject of intense research by Western medicine, and are currently being studied by scientists from many of the world’s most recognized institutions. They’ve been found to be biologically complex, containing immune modulating compounds and other elements that promote circulation, promote digestion, and have diuretic effects that help with fluid retention following some types of cancer treatments. Though there is much more to be learned about the role these traditional medicines may play in cancer treatments, they already play an important role in helping patients maintain and build strength and resistance to illness.
Cancer Care at Empirical Point Acupuncture
In the face of a cancer diagnosis and its physical and emotional ramifications, Chinese medicine — and especially acupuncture — offer proven benefits. By integrating acupuncture and Chinese herbs with Western medicine, patients can significantly improve their quality of life, as well as their response to treatment. Sharon Sherman has been licensed to practice acupuncture and Oriental Medicine since 2001, and holds the highest credential available from both the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Her knowledge and understanding of the appropriate use of Chinese medicine for cancer can assure patients of the highest level of care and professionalism.