Though it is relatively rare, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) expect that there will be over 22,000 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed in 2016. While doctors and researchers are constantly developing new treatments, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than half of those diagnosed will die from the disease this year. That number has been steadily falling for the past few decades, but the treatment process for ovarian cancer – which often progresses unnoticed, as its symptoms can seem unremarkable at first – remains difficult to endure.
People with ovarian cancer, who are statistically most likely to be postmenopausal women, are generally offered three treatment options: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. When patients select the first option, surgeons will perform debulking procedures in order to remove visible tumors on the ovaries and other affected regions, such as the fallopian tubes, colon, uterus, and cervix. As with most other cancers, chemotherapy and radiation are taken orally or intravenously, and are accompanied by a number of painful and exhausting side effects. These can (and very often do) include:
- Hair loss
- Mouth sores and dry mouth
- Reduced immune function
- Skin rashes
- Increased susceptibility to infection
- Diminished appetite
- Stool changes
- Loss of balance
- Shaking and muscle weakness
Increasingly, Chinese medicine approaches – including herbal treatments and acupuncture – are being used to help relieve many of these post-treatment ailments. Recently, researchers from the University of Manchester in the UK went as far as to suggest that “acupuncture should be considered for symptom management where there are limited treatment options.” Johns Hopkins Hospital has even compiled a list of useful complementary and alternative treatments for chemotherapy’s side effects, which includes acupuncture. This is because it has been shown in numerous studies to reduce the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy drugs, and may even “lessen the need for conventional pain-relieving medications.”
As cancer patients continue to turn to acupuncture for pain and nausea relief, some of the most prestigious medical centers and hospitals are taking note and integrating alternative medicine into their traditional Western oncology treatments. The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers acupuncture as part of its cancer care program, and has even compiled a list of reasons patients might want to try it. Massachusetts General includes acupuncture as part of its oncology practice, citing its potential to “reduce stress and relieve symptoms and side effects related to cancer treatment such as anxiety, nausea, dry mouth and fatigue.” The University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center not only offers acupuncture for ovarian cancer patients, but actively incorporates it into radiation treatment to heal and prevent the complications that often arise from dry mouth.
The National Cancer Institute, which provides a great online resource and information portal for cancer patients, writes about acupuncture as a means to “control pain, including cancer pain, and to help control nausea and vomiting.” The NCI also outlines helpful information for patients about the “strong evidence from clinical trials that acupuncture relieves nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.”
Often, CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) practitioners will combine acupuncture with other gentle treatments to achieve an even greater healing effect. In 2009, researchers conducted a study to test the combination of vitamin B6 and acupuncture for chemotherapy-related nausea in ovarian cancer patients. The study showed that:
The acupuncture plus vitamin B6 PC6 points injection group had significantly fewer emesis [vomiting] episodes and a greater proportion of emesis-free days than the acupuncture group or the vitamin B6 alone group. We conclude that acupuncture plus vitamin B6 PC6 point injection is a quite useful method against emesis in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.*
In their list of recommended complementary ovarian cancer treatments, Johns Hopkins also points to numerous other diet-related interventions, including vitamin A “to prevent cancer from developing”; selenium “for preventing the development and progression of cancer”; and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) for its “protective effects against heart damage related to chemotherapy (e.g. doxorubicin).” Acupuncturists often discuss dietary strategies with their patients, as they know that a balanced, anti-inflammatory diet can enhance the healing properties of acupuncture. It can also improve patients’ chances for a successful outcome when they take Chinese herbal medicines, like Sho-Saiko-To also commonly known as Minor Bupuleurum Formula or Xiao Chai Hu Tang, which has been shown to promote “significant growth inhibition of ovarian cancer cell lines…”
Today, there are ongoing clinical trials that will continue to gauge the effectiveness of acupuncture for cancer patients. If you are interested in learning more about these trials, or perhaps enrolling in one of them, you can find more information here.
As ovarian cancer treatment success rates continue to rise, and new, promising treatments enter development, doctors and patients are taking heart. They are also taking an alternative approach to surviving treatment and living more comfortably with the disease – one that continues to show that acupuncture can have a dramatic, positive impact on patients’ wellbeing.
* PC6 stands for Pericardium 6, an acupuncture point just above the inside of the wrist that is well known to ease nausea and vomiting. In this study, researchers injected vitamin B6 directly into PC6 to enhance the anti-nausea effect of the treatment.
This post was updated on August 15, 2016