Complementary Care for Cancer Patients with Oriental Medicine
As Oriental Medicine (OM) becomes a more widely-accepted treatment modality, there is increasing evidence that it can assist cancer patients during their process of conventional treatment. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy can alleviate many of the common side effects of radiation and chemotherapy, and significantly improve the quality of life for many patients.
What does the research show?
In the past few years, acupuncture and OM have been the focus of increased interest and research funding. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded grants for the first acupuncture trials in 1973.
The Society of Acupuncture Research (SAR) promotes research in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, and was actively involved in the November 1997 Consensus Development Conference on Acupuncture, sponsored by the NIH. The panel concluded that, “...there is sufficient evidence of acupuncture’s value to expand its use into conventional medicine and to encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value.” (1) The panel found considerable evidence that OM decreases nausea/vomiting during chemotherapy and relieves pain. (2)
The American Cancer Society, on its website, states, “Acupuncture is an effective treatment for nausea caused by chemotherapy drugs and surgical anesthesia.” (3,4,5)
Keith I. Block, MD, Medical/Scientific Director of the Institute for Integrative Cancer Care, states: “Serious exploration of alternative ways to improve the quality of life for persons undergoing cancer therapy represents a cornerstone as we face a new era in the treatment of this insidious disease. This can be accomplished by reducing pain, nausea and other debilitating ‘side effects’ - and most importantly, to give hope where it has perhaps diminished. As part of an integrative practice, I believe acupuncture has a solid and scientifically promising basis. Thus, continued investigation of acupuncture for clinical application and research is warranted in the area of cancer treatment.” (6)
W. Weiger, MD advises patients who seek complementary and alternative therapies for cancer: “Another potential role of acupuncture in patients with cancer is the palliation of chronic pain. Several case reports and series suggest that acupuncture may provide relief when conventional measures fail to control chronic pain resulting from underlying disease or conventional treatments (surgery or radiation). ... randomized controlled trials to date suggest that it is certainly reasonable to accept the use of acupuncture in conjunction with standard anti-emetics to control chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting” (7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15)
Acupuncture has shown efficacy for advanced breast and lung cancer patients with dyspnea (difficulty breathing) when compared to a sham group. (16)
In a University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute study, researchers received a grant of $1.2 million from the NIH to establish the role acupuncture may play in the treatment of patients with advanced colorectal cancer. “For many terminally ill colorectal cancer patients, their final months are marred by distressing physical and psychological symptoms,” remarked Dr. Ellen Redinbaugh, the study’s principal investigator. She added that the high hospitalization rates for such patients “indicate a clear need for new interventions to ameliorate their distress and promote their quality of life,” and that “acupuncture holds promise as one such technique.” (17)
Photo © Dagmar Ehling
What is the role of Chinese herbs for cancer patients who are undergoing conventional treatments?
Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) also holds much promise in treating cancer patients. Like acupuncture, CHM can be used to relieve nausea in chemotherapy patients. Some patients are intolerant to the side-effects of standard anti-emetic or analgesic drugs, and can benefit significantly from acupuncture and herbal compounds combined. (19)
In a study with 182 cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, 98 were also given an herbal formula. It was modified to address issues like poor appetite, leukopenia, hemorrhaging of the digestive or respiratory tract, pain, jaundice, and nausea/vomiting. After 28 days, results observed for the group taking herbs in comparison to the group taking chemotherapy alone were reduced leukopenia and thrombocytopenia, improved appetite and increased body weight. Follow-up after five years revealed that recurrence and metastasis for the chemo/herb group was at 10 percent whereas for the chemo-alone group it was 35 percent. Mortality rates were at 8 percent for the chemo/herb group and 20 percent for the chemo-alone group. (19)
Several studies were done to test the effectiveness of radiotherapy when combined with Chinese herbal medicine. White blood and platelet counts tend to stay normal longer in radiation therapy patients with the inclusion of herbs, allowing patients to complete their prescribed courses of conventional treatments with increased potential for success. (20)
Primary lung cancer patients were divided into two groups, one group received radiotherapy and CM combined, the other was treated with radiotherapy alone. In the combined group, 69 percent were able to complete their prescribed radiation course, while in the radiation alone group, only 31 percent could complete the course. Tumor circumference showed greater reduction using the combined approach. (20)
University of California researchers have found that Chinese herbs used with cancer patients “reduce the tumor load; prevent recurrence or formation of a new primary cancer; bolster the immune system; enhance the regulatory function of the endocrine system; protect the structure and function of internal organs and glands; strengthen the digestive system by improving absorption and metabolism; protect bone marrow and hematopoetic function; and prevent, control, and treat adverse side-effects caused by conventional treatments for cancer.” (22)
In the practice of OM, cancer is viewed as a part of a pattern of disharmony both stemming from and affecting the entire system (body-mind-spirit). OM views the imbalanced system as a potential amplifier of cellular aberrations. The main treatment strategy is to restore health by creating homeostasis within the system.
How much does it cost?
Patients can expect to receive 5 to 9 treatments over the course of three months in conjunction with ongoing chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy protocols at a cost of approximately $600-$800. There is very little insurance coverage for acupuncture in North Carolina, though many of our patients pay for the cost of treatments with their flexible spending or health savings accounts.
How many treatments will I need?
Treatments are custom-tailored to fit each patient’s needs. Many patients find that acupuncture treatments so dramatically improve their response to standard therapy that they request an acupuncture treatment with each of their chemo/radiation sessions. For example, if a patient has chemo every Wednesday for 3 weeks in a row, she may have acupuncture every Tuesday during those 3 weeks, then skip acupuncture when she also has a week off from chemo. Other patients may find that one acupuncture treatment per two radiation sessions is sufficient support.
During western medical treatment breaks, occasional acupuncture and daily herbal medicine may be used to build up your immune system, regulate digestion, and improve overall energy.
The practitioners at OHS practitioners have a combined 50+ years of experience. We gladly work with you and your doctor to fit your needs, and help you have the best possible outcome.
1. NIH Consensus Panel. Acupuncture. NIH Consensus Development Statement. Bethesda, MD, Nov 3-5, 1997
2. Vickers AJ. Can acupuncture have specific effects on health? A systematic review of acupuncture antiemesis trials. J R Soc Med. 1996. 89.303-311
3. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org
4. Shen J, et al. Electroacupuncture for Control of myeloablative chemotherapy induced Emesis: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 2000. 284(21):2755-2761
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15. Alimi D, et al. Analgesic effect of auricular acupuncture for cancer pain: A randomized, blinded controlled trial. J Clin Oncol, 2003. Vol 21(22):4120-4126.
16. Vickers AJ, et al. Acupuncture for dyspnea in advanced cancer: a randomized, placebo-controlled pilot trial. BMC Palliat Care, 2005 Aug 18,4:5.
17. Study examines acupuncture to alleviate symptoms for advanced colorectal cancer patients. EurekAlert news release, March 4, 2003.
18. Lao L. et al. Is Acupuncture Safe? A Systematic Review of Case Reports. Altern Ther Health Med 2003;9(1):72-83
19. Wong R, Sagar CM, Sagar SM. Integration of Chinese medicine into supportive cancer care: a modern role for an ancient tradition. Cancer Treatment Reviews 2001;27:235-246.
20. Li Peiwen. Management of Cancer with Chinese Medicine. Donica Publishing, 2003. Distributed by Churchill and Livingstone. pp. 76-77. pp 79.
21. Zhang RJ, et al. Medicinal protection with Chinese herb compound against radiation damage. Aviat Space & Environ Med. 1990;61:729-31
22. Tagliaferri M. et al. Complementary and alternative medicine in early stage breast cancer. Seminars in Oncology, Vol 28, No 1(Feb), 2001:127.