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Q&A: Acupuncture and Cancer Patients

CancerWise - July 2008

The ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture can help alleviate symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatments, as well as conditions not related to cancer.

Answering questions on the topic is Meide Liu, M.D., L.Ac., who treats about six cancer patients a day, five days a week at M. D. Anderson’s Place … of wellness.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine and involves inserting thin needles into points on the body to unblock energy, or qi (pronounced "chee”), to balance the yin and yang within the body (opposite forces).

[In traditional Chinese medicine, disease is diagnosed and treated based on the balance of yin and yang, or opposite forces (night and day, dark and light, cold and hot), according to the National Cancer Institute.]

Qi should move like a freeway, the way cars move in a free flow. If one car stops, other cars behind it are backed up. If people have a free flow of qi, they’re fine. If there’s a blockage, then they’re sick or have pain.

To unblock qi, acupuncturists insert needles into acupuncture points, or acupoints, along the body’s 14 major meridians (energy pathways) or 15 minor meridians. There are more than 400 acupoints in the meridian system.

How does acupuncture help cancer patients?

Acupuncture is used to treat the side effects of traditional treatment: chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Cancer patients need a physician's referral in order to receive acupuncture. Patients also should check with their insurance company to see if acupuncture is covered.

Side effects that acupuncture addresses:

  • Pain
  • Nausea
  • Neuropathy
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Hot flashes
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

Before cancer patients come to see me, I review their history; I check their white blood cell count, their platelet count and see what medicine they’re taking. At their first appointment, I find out what symptoms are bothering them. I then consider a treatment plan for them.

What symptoms do you treat most often?

The most common symptom is pain. It can be pain from cancer treatment or the disease, or pain that’s not related to the cancer. Some pain, like lower back pain, is related to the cancer, but I have treated people for unrelated back pain that they’ve had for a long time, sometimes 40 years.

Another common symptom is neuropathy (tingling, numbness or burning in the hands and feet from nerve damage), which can be caused by chemotherapy. I also see patients with dry mouth from radiation. Acupuncture has helped them a lot.

What kind of pain have you treated?

I've treated various kinds of pain, such as headache, neck and shoulder pain, back pain, chest pain, abdominal pain and joint pain.

Some patients with breast cancer have a lot pain after surgery in the chest wall and in the upper arm area. They’re taking heavy pain medicine, but there’s still pain. I have a breast cancer patient with this kind of pain who has had four acupuncture treatments, and the pain is almost gone.

Another patient drove 31⁄2 hours to Houston for acupuncture to treat neck pain. After treatment, the pain went away. She told me she felt a thousand times better. Before acupuncture, she felt very tired and sick. She said now she can get up in the morning and walk the dog. She can also do housework and go to work.

What results have you had with neuropathy?

I had a patient with severe pain, numbness and tingling in the feet and numbness in the hands. He said it was difficult to walk. Sometimes when he drove, his feet couldn’t feel the brake, and he had to stop and ask his wife to drive.

When he came to the second acupuncture treatment he said he could walk between 1 and 1.5 miles with no pain. At his third treatment he said the pain was gone in his feet, but he still had numbness and tingling in his feet and numbness in his hands. The numbness and tingling will take time to go away because the nerve is regenerating.

What else has responded well to acupuncture?

Acupuncture also has helped many patients with dry mouth. It’s best if patients get acupuncture during treatment to prevent dry mouth from getting worse.

Acupuncture can significantly help to relieve the symptoms of fatigue, nausea or diarrhea due to chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Acupuncture also helps to treat hot flashes, night sweats, anxiety and insomnia.

How long has acupuncture been available?

We’ve offered acupuncture since February 2004 to M. D. Anderson patients at the Place … of wellness, which is part of our Integrative Medicine Program. I’ve heard that now many other major cancer centers treat side effects with acupuncture.

Do the needles hurt?

Most of the time, no, because the needles are very thin, like a strand of hair.

How safe are acupuncture needles?

They're single-use needles, and they're very safe. We use disposable, steel acupuncture needles.

Are there plans to expand acupuncture services?

More patients are discovering acupuncture, and we are working to get another acupuncturist on our staff. We've also had requests from M. D. Anderson's satellite centers to bring acupuncture services, as well as other Place ... of wellness programs, to their locations.

M. D. Anderson resources:

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center