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How can Chinese medicine assist my western cancer therapies?

older coupleAs Chinese Medicine (CM) is gaining popularity, more evidence is showing that it can assist cancer patients during their process of conventional treatment. Acupuncture and in some situations, also Chinese herbs, have shown alleviation of many of the common side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. This results in improvement of quality of life for many patients.

What does the research show?

In the past few years, acupuncture and CM 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 CM 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). ... In summary, 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)
How safe is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is remarkably safe with only 202 serious adverse events identified in a systematic review of 98 papers reported from 22 countries in 35 years between 1965 to 1999. (18)

What is the role of Chinese herbs for cancer patients who are undergoing conventional treatments?
Chinese herbs also hold much promise in treating cancer patients. Chinese herbal medicine, just like acupuncture, 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 CM, cancer is viewed as a part of a pattern of disharmony both stemming from and affecting the entire system (body-mind-spirit).  CM 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.

What can I expect?

Patients can expect to receive 5 to 7 treatments over the course of three months in conjunction with ongoing chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy protocols at a cost of approximately $600. There is very little insurance coverage for acupuncture in North Carolina. Cash, checks and credit cards are accepted. Follow-up treatments can be coordinated with conventional treatment protocol regimens.

How many treatments will I need?

Since all treatments are custom-tailored this really depends on your specific circumstance. Patients have particularly benefited from weekly treatment during the actual chemotherapy and/or radiation to improve their quality of life, but, again, the frequency will depend on your situation.
During western medical treatment breaks it can be helpful to build up your immune system, improve digestion and increase your stamina.
Here at OHS, our practitioners have decades of experience, and are always happy to work with you and your doctor in order to best fit your needs.


“I just love getting treatments. They are so relaxing. I hardly notice the needles going in and then, right after the needles go in, I feel this total relaxation coming over me that feels so nourishing, I can hardly describe it. I feel like I am in a trance state. A wonderful feeling!”  A. J., Durham, NC

“I was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in December of 2003. After surgery, I received the traditional treatment – chemotherapy and radiation. Eleven months after completing that treatment the cancer was back. Remembering the unpleasant side effects of the earlier chemo (low red and white blood counts, lack of energy, nausea and digestive problems), I decided to pursue Oriental medicine as a complementary treatment. This was done with the complete support of my oncologist. We focused the treatment (acupuncture, herbs, diet, etc.) on improving my general health during chemotherapy and countering the negative side effects. We paid special attention to my immune system and were able to keep my white blood counts high enough that I did not get sick or have to skip any chemo treatments. My overall energy and well being have been amazing. I would highly recommend the use of Oriental medicine as a complement to traditional medical treatment.”
V. E., March 2006

“I was diagnosed with lung cancer November 2003 and began chemotherapy in February 2003. During treatment, at the urging of my daughter who had greatly benefited from acupuncture, I made an appointment with OHS. The teaching was very powerful for my symptoms, my strengths and weaknesses, my history. The practitioner at OHS was extremely knowledgeable about whole body healing and the importance of the immune system. I truly believe that acupuncture played a key role in my immune system staying strong through 4 months of chemotherapy.  I continue to periodically go for acupuncture and I continue to do well as a cancer survivor. Thank You, OHS”
J. M. S., April 6, 2006

“When I was diagnosed with my cancer, I was distraught. I was petrified of the upcoming chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. I knew nothing about acupuncture but went to see a practitioner at OHS at the suggestion of a friend. My husband stayed with me after the practitioner put the needles in and says my face relaxed for the first time since the diagnosis and then my body relaxed. He says my spirits improved from that moment forward.

After my 4th week of radiation therapy and the 2nd week of in-patient chemotherapy, I was so nauseous that I could keep nothing down. The meds my doctors gave me did little to improve my nausea and I was becoming weaker and battling dehydration. I was hospitalized an extra time just to deal with the nausea and dehydration. By putting needles in my wrists the nausea disappeared immediately. We worked out a way to keep tiny needles in place and I began to regain my strength.”
V. P., April 2006

“Six months ago, I was diagnosed with a very early stage breast cancer (ductal carcinoma in situ), for which it was recommended I have a lumpectomy and a six week course of radiation. After the first surgery, I had to have a re-incision, to make the margin around the tissue that was removed and the rest of the breast tissue wider. At the same time, I was bitten by a tick and contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. After the acute stage of this painful infection abated, I began the radiation treatments on my breast.

I truly do not know how I would have made it through both surgeries, the radiation and recovered from the tick-borne disease with out the benefit of acupuncture and other advice from OHS. I had a remarkably rapid recovery from all of these conditions.

Thanks to the acupuncture treatments, nutrition advice and a nutritional supplement recommended by a practitioner @ OHS, I experienced less fatigue that many other breast cancer patients. And compared to the other patients I met in the radiation waiting room, I also experienced much milder side effects from the radiation. In fact, my skin never burned, I had no lymph edema and was able to carry on almost normally throughout the six week radiation treatment period.

In addition, my recovery from the RMSP was remarkably rapid. I’ve read and been told by others who had this illness or knew someone who had it, that recovery can take years. I’m pretty much back to my normal functioning and energy levels after six months.

Acupuncture and electronic stimulation have also aided in the process of weaning my body off of the powerful narcotic pain medicines that were necessary in the first few months for both recovery from the breast surgery and the RMSF.

I am absolutely convinced by my own experiences, that acupuncture and the knowledge of the practitioner helped my body both meet and recover from some very serious challenges much more rapidly than would otherwise have been possible.

I am grateful to OHS for the knowledge and assistance that have helped me return to an active and productive life style.”
N. S. O’D., April 2006


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.
4. Shen J, et al. Electroacupuncture for Control of myeloablative chemotherapy induced Emesis: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 2000. 284(21):2755-2761.
5. Beinfeld H, Korngold E. Chinese medicine and cancer care. Altern Ther Health Med. 2003;9(5).
6. Block KI. Acupuncture Complements Cancer Therapy. Acupuncture Today. February, 2003, Vol 04,(02).
7. Weiger W, Smith M, Boon H, et al. Advising patients who seek complementary and alternative therapies for cancer. Annals of Internal Medicine 2002;137:899-903.
8. King CR. Nonpharmacologic management of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Oncol Nurs Forum 1997;24 (suppl. 7):41-48.
9. Rhodes VA, McDaniel RW. Measuring nausea, vomiting and retching. In: Frank-Stromberg M, Olsen SJ (eds.) Instruments for Clinic Health Care Res, 2nd ed. Boston, Jones & Bartlett,1997,pp.509-518.
10. de Aloysio D, Penacchioni P. Morning sickness control in early pregnancy by Neiguan point acupressure. Obstetrics and Gynecology 1992;80:852-854.
11. Belluomini J, et al. Acupressure for nausea and vomiting of pregnancy: a randomized, blinded study. Obstetrics and Gynecology 1994;84:245-248.
12. Fan CF, et al. Acupressure treatment for prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting. Anesth Analgesia 1997;84:821-825.
13. Dibble SL, Chapman J, Mack KA, Shih A. Acupressure for nausea: results of a pilot study. Oncology Nursing Forum Feb 2000;27(1):41-7.
14. Pomeranz B. Acupuncture Analgesia-Basic Research, Stux G, Hammershlag R (eds), Clinical Acupuncture: Scientific Basis, Berlin:Springer-Verlag, 2001. pp. 1-29.
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.

Book Resources:

Guide to the Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer.  Janette D. Sherman, MD