The Benefits of Acupuncture for Cancer Support
Cancer support is increasingly recognised as fundamental to improving patients’ experience and quality of life when living with cancer and beyond. From diagnosis, through treatment and recovery, learning to deal with the physical and mental challenges of a disease that causes great fear in most people, will require digging deep into our reserves.
Yet with some extra care, much can be done to alleviate the immediate and long-lasting effects of cancer and its treatment on a person’s overall health and wellbeing. Many specialist cancer centres and charities recognise this and have highlighted the important role complementary therapies can play in addressing patients’ needs, whether they are newly diagnosed and awaiting treatment, currently undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy or other targeted drug therapy, recovering from surgery, or in remission.
Acupuncture is one therapy that is now widely used to help anyone affected by cancer, as it provides a safe, natural and gentle way to assist both body and mind through what can be a frightening, isolating and physically draining experience. So what exactly are the benefits of acupuncture for cancer support?
WHY TRY ACUPUNCTURE?
Acupuncture – which finds its origins in Eastern Medicine – is based on the principle that our bodies and minds are wonderful healing machines with incredible capacity to deal with physical and mental difficulties. Achieving a state of balance is considered in acupuncture to be an intrinsic goal of human existence, and within the reach of everyone of us, if given the right physical and mental conditions – nutritious food, enough rest, good breathing and keeping our emotions in check. These conditions will necessitate us to make appropriate lifestyle choices, but acupuncture treatments can assist the process too, by creating a better flow in our system so that we feel less stressed, digest our food better, feel hungry when we should, sleep deeply and so on.
It is true of course that lifestyle choices do not explain the full story when it comes to understanding our health. We are all born with predispositions – some useful, some less so – which are written into our DNA. In Oriental Medicine, this inherence is known as ‘Jing’ – the essence of our being which we are born with. Although we have little control over whether our ‘Jing’ is strong or weakened from the outset, we can alter the rate at which it is depleted by minimising stress on our system, rebalancing as much as possible and nourishing well both body and mind, all of which can be achieved with the help of acupuncture treatments and good self-care routines. Addressing the state of a person’s Jing is understandably an important part of acupuncture for cancer support.
From a Western Medicine point of view, the benefits of acupuncture for cancer support can be explained through an acupuncture treatment’s effect on the nervous system. The insertion of an ultra-fine needle into selected points around the body, as performed during an acupuncture treatment, activates and regulates various chemical and hormonal mechanisms as well as cell functions, while improving circulation, blood pressure and body temperature. In practice, this means that acupuncture can have a positive impact on helping better manage many aspects related to the cancer itself, the side-effects of cancer treatment, or the recovery. Here I run through some key areas of where acupuncture can help cancer patients:
1. Pain Relief
Acupuncture is well known for its ability to reduce pain, and it is therefore often used to help manage pain conditions in cancer. Acupuncture enables the release of endorphins and serotonin and has been found in various studies to change the way pain messages are processed in the spinal cord and brain. Acupuncture can act as an anti-inflammatory while leading to other changes, such as improving muscle movement, thereby relieving the pain.
Cancer and its treatments put both body and mind under a huge strain leading to physical and mental exhaustion. Acupuncture is extremely effective at supporting the whole person during challenging times, making sure every organ is working at its very best. There are also specific areas of the body which, in Oriental Medicine, are regarded as energy storehouses and can be replenished and tapped into to call on much needed reserves to improve energy, while clearing the build-up of toxicity in the system that often leads to lethargy.
3. Hot Flushes and Body Temperature Regulation
Changes in body temperature regulation, including nights sweats, can be caused by the cancer itself, but are also typical side effects of some cancer treatments. In Oriental Medicine, this would be considered the result of a depletion in one or both of our two fundamental energies, Yin (cooling) and Yang (heating). There are many areas of the body that can be targeted in acupuncture to rebalance these energies, effectively resetting our body thermostat to remain stable when needed and to respond appropriately to changing temperature requirements.
4. Nausea and Loss of Appetite
Nausea is a frequent, often debilitating, side-effect of chemotherapy which can also make eating well a challenge. Acupuncture considers the causes of nausea, described as ‘rebellious Qi’ (pronounced ‘chi’), as occurring when the flow of energy and fluids in our system is going in the wrong direction. Specific acupuncture points and techniques can be used to correct this. Acupuncture has been shown on scans to activate certain parts of the brain, and this may explain how nausea inducing brain signals can be regulated. A trained acupuncturist can also show patients how to use certain acupressure points, notably on the forearm to alleviate nausea.
5. Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)
Radiation therapy and certain chemotherapy interventions can result in cancer patients experiencing severe dryness in their mouth and thickening of their saliva. Not only can this create a feeling of a constant sore throat and can even make eating difficult, it can further lead to mouth ulcers and mouth infections, gum and tooth problems. Fluids and moisture are considered essential to a balanced system in Oriental Medicine and there are therefore many approaches to treatment that can be used in acupuncture to improve the production and release of saliva.
6. Peripheral Neuropathy
Anti-cancer drugs, surgery or a tumour growing near a nerve can cause peripheral nerve damage. Peripheral neuropathy can severely affect a person’s quality of life with symptoms including weakness, numbness, loss of sensation or even coordination problems, such as when trying to grasp small objects or fastening buttons on clothing. There is growing evidence that acupuncture is a safe and effective intervention to support patients suffering with the condition, notably by boosting circulation and blood flow.
7. Stress and Anxiety
The deep sense of relaxation experienced during acupuncture is for cancer patients a welcome moment of peace from the relentless pace of hospital treatments and appointments. There can be many sources of stress and anxiety for anyone living with and beyond cancer, and each person’s response to this stress will be different. Acupuncture recognises this and creates for each patient an individualised treatment based on information gathered with diagnostic techniques integral to Oriental Medicine, providing immediate relief as well as an improved ability to respond to stressful situations.
8. Improved Healing and Reduced Infection
The ancient texts of Oriental Medicine often describe acupuncture as ‘preventative medicine’. By this, it was meant that by keeping an internal state of health and balance in both body and mind, we have a better ability to deal with ill-health when faced with it – making us less likely to get poorly, and if we do, allowing a speedier recovery. While applying this principle is of course useful to anyone, for cancer patients this means the acupuncture treatments provide much needed additional support to ensure they are less prone to infections during their cancer treatments and can also bounce back faster.
It is important to note that fully qualified acupuncturists who are Members of the British Acupuncture Council (recognisable with the letters MBAcC after their name) adhere to very strict safety and hygiene guidelines that ensure that even vulnerable immuno-suppressed patients can safely experience the benefits of acupuncture.
WHY DOES CANCER SUPPORT MATTER?
Having supported cancer patients both in private clinic and as part of a team of Macmillan acupuncture volunteers, I have seen and heard first-hand from patients themselves the many benefits they have experienced from receiving acupuncture, including that instant lift that boosts their resilience to keep going.
As well as bringing relief from physical discomforts, acupuncture provides a mental refresh that leaves people feeling more positive despite the adversity they are facing. This is important, as there is increasing evidence that a positive mindset can positively impact on the course of a disease, even cancer. So, if you or anyone you know is, or has been, affected by cancer and are looking for something that will help them feel stronger and better able to cope, then they should seriously consider giving acupuncture for cancer support a go.
Lisa Lee, Lic.Ac. PhD, is a fully qualified Five Element acupuncturist who works from her clinic on Harley Street. She treats patients looking for help with a wide range of health and wellbeing issues and has specialist interests in fertility, anxiety, and cancer support. www.lisaleeacu.com