Supporting Cancer Patients with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
Hearing the news, “you have cancer,” from a doctor can be very devastating for anyone. I know I was shocked and very sad when my cousin passed away from pancreatic cancer. She lived with me to help care for my 3 babies for almost 3 years, until she passed away at age 40 years old. This experience humbled me as a doctor in Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. It made me not only treasure life more, but I became more serious and cautious towards treating cancer patients and cancer care.
Over many years of practicing Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, one of the most memorable cases I’ve encountered was from 1997, 23 years ago. It led me to believe that Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture may not be the best at eliminating someone’s cancer, but it for sure will help to balance the body to control the cancer.
In 1997, I was working with my mom, a professor and an experienced acupuncturist. Maggie, who was a teacher, came to us with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma which unfortunately already metastasized to other parts of the body. She was given half a year of life expectancy. She told us upfront that she already declined conventional cancer treatment. I usually do not suggest patients decline conventional treatments. Declining conventional treatment is risky and uncertain for the patients, and too much responsibility for a doctor. I would only suggest patients to skip conventional treatment if he or she is too fragile to handle surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. Maggie was a real trooper for coming to acupuncture treatment weekly and drank the Chinese herbs we prescribed to her daily. As a result, her condition was under control. She was able to teach for 3 more years and even travelled periodically. However, CT scan showed that her tumors shrank only slightly, not significantly. Therefore, she decided to get off of acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for a while to try out another alternative treatment someone suggested. Of course we could not have stopped her not knowing whether the next option will be better or worse. We certainly hoped that the other alternative was going to help her decrease the cancer more significantly. Unfortunately, after half a year of trying that option, she came back and told us that the tumors were advancing. She wanted to go back on acupuncture and Chinese Medicine again. This time, we were only able to alleviate some pain and discomfort from the cancer, which prolonged her life slightly longer. This time, we weren’t able to control the tumor from advancing. Although we couldn’t save her life longer after that, she did live 5 years longer than the life expectancy she was given at the time of the diagnosis. She was grateful for the life she had and we remember her for the trust she had in us.
With her in my memory, I was interested in working with more cancer patients. I worked for Healing with Hope for about a year in 2001. It was affiliated with Hope Infusion, a conventional cancer treatment facility in San Mateo. They were pioneers in integrating acupuncture into cancer care at that time. The nurse practitioner who supervised the program and the manager who ran the program welcomed me to help patients with cancer in alleviating their pain, nausea, vomiting, neuropathy, fatigue, stress, insomnia and other symptoms that arose from chemotherapy and radiation, or cancer. Oncologists were welcoming the support as well. Their willingness to encourage patients to use alternative care in support of the conventional therapy enlightened my path to help more patients with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.
Since then, many cancer centers in the US have integrated acupuncture into cancer care. Hospitals such as UCSF and Stanford all have Centers for Integrative Medicine. This is also due to many studies that took place in the last 20 years which demonstrated acupuncture and Chinese Medicine to be effective and safe adjunct therapies for cancer care. According to a National Institute of Health article, The Value of Acupuncture in Cancer Care, published on https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2642987/, “randomized clinical trials have demonstrated that acupuncture is effective for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Research studies also suggest acupuncture may be helpful in managing cancer-related pain, chemotherapy-related neutropenia, cancer fatigue, and radiation-induced xerostomia.” Another article, Scientific Evidence on the Supportive Cancer Care with Chinese Medicine, published on https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6000535/, stated that “recent research has revealed growing evidence suggesting that Traditional Chinese Medicine is effective in the supportive care of cancer patients during and after major conventional cancer treatments.” Research findings both encourage cancer patients to seek Traditional Chinese Medicine care and clinicians like me to confidently help these patients.
After years of using acupuncture and Chinese Medicine to help cancer patients, I have gathered some experience to share with those who seek acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for cancer care.
What does it mean to Chinese Medicine theory when there is a “cancer”?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory is the foundation for both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. According to TCM theory, the pathological characteristics in cancer patients are the manifestation of phlegm, stagnation, deficiency, and toxic heat in the body. When I assess a patient, first, I would get a thorough history of the patient, check the affected areas objectively, get TCM pulse and tongue readings, reviewing CT/MRI and blood test reports, and current conventional treatment and medications. Then, a TCM diagnosis can be established on the body’s constitution with all the information collected. Finally, there will be a discussion about the case to set protocol for acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. We will also set realistic goals.
How Acupuncture Helps?
The basic idea behind acupuncture is to balance the body. Needles are placed in the specific pressure points of the body so that the congested meridian(s) can open. Meridians are energy /Qi /Chi pathways in the body. Pressure points are chosen based on the practitioners’ diagnosis of the patient’s general constitution and symptoms to be addressed accordingly. Acupuncture can move the stagnated energy /Qi in the stomach for a patient who suffers nausea. It can relax the emotional ups and downs from the overall stress. It can stimulate the blood circulation to the hands and feet for numbness or tingling. It can also achieve a lot more than I can write here. Overall, acupuncture is known to regulate homeostasis in the body. Symptoms can be different for every patient, thus, treatments are individualized.
How Herbs Help?
Same with Chinese herbs, they are also individualized. Chinese herbs are prescribed based on someone’s general constitution as well as the symptoms. They are determined by a patient’s history, physical findings, pulse and tongue readings, and the western medicine treatment involved. Chinese herbs are also used to restore the body’s unbalanced energy. In comparison to acupuncture, Chinese herbs can be better at tonifying or supplementing a deficient body. Acupuncture on the other hand can be quicker at alleviating and regulating the body’s condition. Chinese herbs may or may not be combined with acupuncture depending on the individual situation. Patients may have different concerns when it comes to Chinese herbs, concerns such as the quality of the herbs, contraindication with Western medicine, or taste of the herbs, etc. This can be a shared decision between the patient and practitioner, evaluating the pros and cons of the individual situation and types of herbs. In addition, the patient can also choose from various formulations of the Chinese herbs, like pills, powder, or raw herb formulas, based on the patient’s preference.
Patients always ask me how many visits they need and how frequent. This will depend on the type of cancer, stage of conventional treatment, and the body constitution. I generally suggest once per week treatment protocol but again it is individualized. If someone has a lot of pain, I may suggest 2-3 times a week to start. But for someone who is very fatigued, I may suggest more herbal care and only once every other week of acupuncture.
There are definitely many things a cancer patient can do on his or her own to help with the healing. Let me elaborate a few:
Exercise: Exercise can be exhausting to think about when someone is not feeling well from symptoms such as fatigue and pain. However, exercise is essential. He or she doesn't necessarily have to go to the gym or run six laps around the block every day, instead, he or she can resort to calmer exercises such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or meditation. A patient can easily search for a video online of such exercises, do it for 15 to 30 minutes, or longer if your body allows. The key is to do it regularly. It’s important to do the breathing techniques when someone is doing any of these exercises. It will get his or her energy going and Qi regulated. The patient might find him or herself more energetic than when he or she started.
Diet: Having a balanced nutritious diet is also key to recovery. A cancer patient should also consider the following suggestions in a healthy diet. First, it is important to have a diet that is mostly warm and cooked. We need a strong digestive system in order to process and absorb the nutrients we eat, thus giving us energy. Our inside stomach temperature is about 98.7 degrees (F). If we eat cold or raw food and drinks, our stomachs will need to use more of its heat and energy to warm it up and process the food. Nausea or stomach discomfort is a common side effect when going through chemotherapy or radiation. Therefore, we need to help our digestion to be strong by staying away from things like ice cream, ice water, and anything cold or raw. Second, we can use ingredients such as ginger in our diet to help warm the stomach, detoxify the food, and warm the body to promote circulation. TCM theory believes each food has its own “temperature” (cold, cool, neutral, warm and hot), the meridian(s) it affects, and what it does to the body. For example, garlic and onion are considered warm, versus most melons are considered cool. Third, porridge may be a good choice when someone suffers from nausea, vomiting, or indigestion. Porridge is easy to digest and absorb, thus very appropriate for people with stomach discomfort. In Chinese culture, porridge is typically served to any type of patient during recovery. The topic of diet is extensive, complicated, and individualized. It will be a good discussion to have with a TCM practitioner.
Sleep: Everyone would agree sleep is very important for healing. My suggestion is that patients sleep no later than 11pm. According to Chinese Medicine theory, we have an Organ Body Clock that is divided into 12 two-hour intervals. Each interval is led by a specific organ energy and 11pm belongs to Gallbladder, and it is followed by the Liver meridian. Therefore, sleeping before 11pm allows the body to detoxify easier and to rejuvenate naturally. For those with sleeping problems, be sure to resolve it as soon as possible. A simple method can be soaking his or her feet with warm water before sleeping, or do some light yoga stretches. Be sure to turn off all his or her electronic devices one hour before he or she sleeps to allow him or herself to unwind. If this person still has a hard time falling or staying asleep, make sure he or she tells the practitioner. Then the practitioner will help him or her by using acupuncture or Chinese herbs, sometimes both.
Stress Management: Managing stress is very important for prevention of cancer as well as recovering from it. Stress causes stagnated energy /Qi inside the body. My suggestions are: don’t over plan the day, don’t take on more tasks than one can handle, resolve conflicts in life, manage relationships well, and stay calm and positive. Stress can come in all shapes and forms. The key is to manage it and don’t ignore it. Ignoring it will actually add stress. A person should not let the body and mind be bothered by something persistently. Emotional problems cause stagnated Liver meridian energy (the meridian is directly affected by emotions). If the stagnated energy is allowed to grow through stress and anxiety, more meridians will be affected. This will result in complex symptoms in the body.
Massage: Getting a massage can help with emotional relaxation as well as body tension relief. When someone’s body is weak, light to moderate pressure during a massage is good enough. A strong massage does not necessarily mean a better massage. It may injure the body instead of helping it. It may exhaust the good energy that’s already depleting. A patient doesn't necessarily need a professional massage if it’s not accessible, he or she can even give him or herself a self-massage. Lightly rubbing over the belly and chest, grabbing the low back muscles, and running hands up and down arms and legs are also very healing. Getting a family member to lightly massage the head, neck and back are all wonderful in promoting muscle relaxation, opening energy pathways, bringing rejuvenation to the body, as well as getting the love we all need in our healing process.
By sharing the above experiences and information, I hope to shine a light into someone’s healing path. The topic may also open up many questions. (Feel free to reach out to me through email below.) Having an open mind to get a consultation will be a good start in exploring Traditional Chinese Medicine for whatever condition they may have!
Written by Lillian Huang, L.Ac., O.M.D., Ph.D. Licensed acupuncturist since 1997 4th generation of Chinese Medicine practitioners in the family Practicing in Hayward, CA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org