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Modern advances in an ancient practice [fighting cancer]

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 10.56.37 AMBy Heather Stringer; from Cancer Fighters Thrive

Studies are revealing the benefits of acupuncture for a wider patient population.

When Karen Reynolds was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in early 2014, she welcomed the idea of integrative medicine as a strategy for managing the side effects of chemotherapy. At earlier points in her life, chiropractic adjustments and plant-based supplements had helped with insomnia and migraines. Her openness to nontraditional treatments paid off yet again when the naturopathic regimen provided at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Newnan, Georgia, allowed Karen to reduce symptoms like nausea and body aches.

Although several side effects were virtually nonexistent, Karen still suffered from occasional ankle and knee pain, headaches and irritability. Members of her care team at CTCA® suggested acupuncture, a form of ancient Chinese medicine in which fine, sterile needles are applied to specific areas of the body, or acupoints, to stimulate energy flow, known as chi.

Karen, 52, was initially uncomfortable with the idea of acupuncture because of the use of needles. “I had written it off as something for people with a high tolerance for pain,” she says. “But in the waiting areas, several patients mentioned that acupuncture had given them relief from various symptoms like aches and pains.”

Karen put her fear aside and scheduled an appointment with an acupuncturist at CTCA. To her surprise the treatment was not painful and led to noticeable improvements. She enjoyed the time alone in the room, as peaceful music played in the background, while the needles triggered responses in her body. Karen started walking without pain, the dull aches in her lower back lessened and her headaches became less frequent. During two of her dozen appointments, she also experienced unforgettable emotional releases.

“I felt an overwhelming desire to cry, and after that I literally felt lighter and the world looked brighter,” she says. “I was letting go of the stress and emotions related to my cancer treatment experience. After that happened I was significantly less irritable and more aware of when I needed to give myself space to deal with my emotions.”

Current Research, Ancient Modality
The fact that acupuncture is a topic of conversation in the waiting rooms at CTCA is reflective of a national trend toward increased interest in this modality within the medical community.

According to a 2008 article in Hematology/Oncology Clinics of North America, the number of research studies published about acupuncture increased 96 percent between 1987 and 2007.¹ Paul Cybularz, LAc, Dipl OM, has seen the demand for acupuncture soar at CTCA in Philadelphia. When he started as a part-time acupuncturist there three years ago, he treated a few patients in a day. The request for appointments escalated to the point that he was hired full-time, and now he treats up to 10 patients per day.

Physicians and patients are becoming more open to acupuncture largely because they are seeing the positive results of this form of treatment, says Irina Aleynikova, MSOM, LAc, a licensed acupuncturist at CTCA in Zion, Illinois, who previously worked as a pulmonologist and acupuncturist at the Institute of Pulmonology and Tuberculosis in the Republic of Belarus.

“Integrating acupuncture into treatment leads to the best care for the patient,” Aleynikova says. “Sometimes it is difficult to relieve symptoms with medication, and acupuncture can be a good addition to medication to prevent or treat side effects. It also can help a patient recover from the effects of their disease. I see a lot of patients dealing with nausea, vomiting, fatigue, neuropathy, hot flashes, hiccups and cravings to smoke who improve after acupuncture.”

Innovations in Treatment
One of the frustrating challenges that Cybularz faces is the inability to treat patients when their platelet levels are too low—which can be a side effect of chemotherapy and/or radiation. These patients may be at higher risk of bleeding during the needling process. In September 2013 Cybularz joined a team of CTCA researchers who conducted a study that examined the charts of more than 2,000 acupuncture visits to determine whether the hospitals’ current requirement of 50,000 platelets per microliter (μL) was appropriate for acupuncture. They found that patients with platelet levels at and around 50,000 μL did not exhibit an increased incidence of adverse events. Now the team is planning a prospective study to evaluate whether the platelet guidelines can be safely reduced even further to open acupuncture to a larger number of patients.

“The needles we use are so thin,” Cybularz says. “In general I can get most of them in without patients even feeling the pinprick. In comparison to many therapies, acupuncture is very safe, but guidelines can be set prohibitively high due to a lack of quality evidence-based data. We could be helping more people.”

New research studies are also exploring the use of acupuncture for another group of patients who have historically been restricted due to safety concerns: people with lymphedema.

“Physicians typically worry that acupuncture in the affected area could increase the swelling or cause an infection, but new studies are showing that it can actually decrease swelling in patients with lymphedema,” says Misha Cohen, OMD, LAc, a research specialist in integrative medicine at University of California, San Francisco.

In a study published in Cancer in July 2013, researchers used acupuncture to treat women with breast cancer–related lymphedema, and more than one-third of the participants experienced at least a 30 percent reduction in arm circumference.2

Why the Body Responds
Researchers are also unlocking the mysteries of why acupuncture works as they explore the physiological mechanisms at work. A treatment called electroacupuncture—in which a weak electric current passes through the needle—is particularly effective in treating pain, Cybularz says, and new studies are revealing why this is the case.

One possible reason acupuncture reduces pain is linked to the fact that it releases our own body’s chemicals that mute the pain response, and electroacupuncture can stimulate the release of a lot more of those natural opioids,” he says.

Cybularz used electroacupuncture to augment traditional acupuncture while treating a middle-aged woman who was in severe abdominal pain after cytoreductive surgery in which her torso had been opened to remove cancer. Even after taking pain medication, she was still intermittently struggling with discomfort and was unable to sleep. Cybularz inserted needles around her elbows, down her forearms and in an area of her scalp. Several minutes later she told Cybularz that her pain had dropped by at least 50 percent, and minutes after that she was sleeping peacefully.

Acupuncture researchers are also investigating how genetics factor in a person’s response to this form of treatment. “Researchers found that people who had a specific genotype had a significantly higher response to acupuncture, which could allow us to personalize treatment,” Cohen says. “If the genetics are known for response to acupuncture, there may be additional evidence-based reasons for doctors to recommend it.”

Clinicians like Cybularz and Cohen are optimistic that in the coming years, study results will continue increasing the openness to acupuncture in the world of Western medicine, and patients will ultimately be the beneficiaries of this integration.

“I am helping people at a time when they are often facing the biggest challenges they have experienced in their lives,” Cybularz says. “They are typically at a point when the quality of life is low and they are losing hope that anybody can help them. After acupuncture they almost always leave feeling better. I explain that I only help their own bodies release natural chemicals. Knowing that they played a role in their own healing seems to give them a sense of empowerment that is palpable.”

Seeking additional reading on Acupuncture and Cancer Care?
Research related to the role of acupuncture in cancer care is ongoing. If you would like to dig a little deeper into the research, take a look at the following journal articles referenced here:

“The Value of Acupuncture in Cancer Care”
Journal: Hematology/Oncology Clinics of North America
Authors: W. Lu, E. Dean-Clower, A. Doherty-Gilman and D. S. Rosenthal
Publication date: August 2008
Abstract online:

“Acupuncture in the Treatment of Upper-Limb Lymphedema: Results of a Pilot Study”
Journal: Cancer
Authors: B. R. Cassileth, K. J. Van Zee, K. S. Yeung, M. I. Coleton, S. Cohen, Y. H. Chan, A. J. Vickers, D. D. Sjoberg and C. A. Hudis
Publication date: July 2013
Abstract online:

1. Lu, W., Dean-Clower, E., Doherty-Gilman, A., & Rosenthal, D. S. (2008). The value of acupuncture in cancer care. Hematology/Oncology Clinics of North America, 22, 631–648. doi: 10.1016/j.hoc.2008.04.005
2. Cassileth, B. R., Van Zee, K. J., Yeung, K. S., et al. (2013). Acupuncture in the treatment of upper-limb lymphedema: Results of a pilot study. Cancer, 119, 2455–2461. doi: 10.1002/cncr.28093

IMAGE: Photo by Sellers Photography

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