It is no secret that the most common breast cancer treatments (chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation) are hard on the body. At least for now, we don’t have ways to effectively eradicate cancer cells without harming healthy tissue so we often have to use these powerful therapies to save patients’ lives.
Unfortunately potent treatments often come with potent side effects. Common short-term side effects of chemotherapy are nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, hair loss, nerve damage, digestive disruption, and problems with cognitive function. These all come as a result of damage to otherwise healthy tissue that is taking “friendly fire” as your cancer cells are targeted.
Although our collective society is thankful that we have protocols for effectively treating many types of cancer, we have relatively little in the way of dealing with the side effects of the treatment. As the number of cancer cases and need for cancer treatments grow, we need ways to support the body in its recovery and regeneration of damaged tissue. As our loved ones fight the effects of cancer and chemo at the same time, they will need support and effective relief from the side effects so their quality of life does not drop below the point where many patients elect to not go through treatment.
Fortunately, this is where Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) thrives. TCM takes a different view of the body from modern western medicine and this different perspective can provide an important complement to current standards of care. TCM practitioners view the body as a group of systems that are constantly shifting to balance each other out. If one system is relatively strong or weak compared to another system, symptoms arise. By taking note of the pattern of symptoms that arise, a TCM practitioner can take steps to treat the imbalance in the body, thus alleviating the symptoms. This “body-focused” approach is inherently different from the “disease-focused” approach of western medicine, so it can effectively treat different issues.
Research is ongoing, but is slowly catching up to prove what TCM practitioners have been seeing clinically for thousands of years – that TCM principles and therapies can be used to safely and effectively reduce symptoms and speed up recovery from illness. Chemotherapy induced nausea has probably been researched the most with results clearly showing that acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment option. Acupuncture has also been shown to significantly improve physical and mental fatigue, decrease anxiety and depression and increase quality of life in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Several research studies have been done indicating that acupuncture has far reaching effects on immune system function, so it is not a stretch to also suggest that acupuncture may be useful in modulating immune system function in chemotherapy patients as well, which would greatly aid in their ability to avoid contracting other illnesses while receiving chemotherapy.
Acupuncture and the other therapies of TCM are typically not quick fixes – it can take time for the body to fully heal from chronic illness. However, patients often experience temporary symptom relief after each session, which can be very helpful in dealing with the side effects of cancer-fighting therapies. In some cases, insurance covers acupuncture sessions as well (call the number on the back of your insurance card to find out).
We are fortunate to live in a time when we have effective treatment options for a cancer diagnosis. It is my hope that we continue to push what it means for a treatment to be “effective” to include a high quality of life during and after treatment and elimination of side effects whenever possible.
Chris Goddin is a Licensed Acupuncturist in the state of Texas and has a private practice in Central Austin (BalanceATX.com). He regularly utilizes an integrative approach that includes acupuncture, cupping therapy, Chinese herbal therapy, dietary counseling, exercise & lifestyle changes in order to effectively treat health conditions causing pain & discomfort, digestive disorders, autoimmune conditions, and hormonal imbalances.