Can Oncology Acupuncture Help Cancer Patients Into Recovery?
A Brief History of Acupuncture
Acupuncture is one of the oldest healing practices in the world. It dates back 4,000 years and is part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine modality. Oncology acupuncture is a newer specialist branch, but shares the same principles.
Acupuncture of any kind involves the insertion of needles at targeted acupoint locations over the entire body.
The historical belief was that vital energy (chi or qi) flowed along meridian pathways throughout the body. Hence, interruption to this chi was believed to lead to illness. Correspondingly, insertion of needles at specific meridian acupoints was thought to improve or restore the flow of energy.
Recent neuroscience work (combined with developments in anatomy and physiology) suggests that acupuncture may in reality provide clinical responses or benefits within the nervous system1.
As a result, the therapy now plays a role in alleviating pain and other symptoms associated with cancer and its treatment.
Cancer in Our Society
Most people probably know someone who has been diagnosed with a form of cancer, because the disease is all too prevalent in our society today.
While advances in biomedicine and treatment regimes have increased survival rates over recent decades, there are still significant adverse treatment effects due to chemotherapy.
In addition to these adverse effects, many people receiving cancer treatment may also experience anxiety, depression and a fear of cancer recurrence2.
It is for these reasons that many oncology patients combine both complementary and alternative medicine with their cancer treatments.
This includes using acupuncture to manage a range of physical and psychological symptoms.
Dr. Natalie Dalton (TCM) from TherapyWorks is an Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency (AHPRA) registered Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Acupuncturist, Clinical Nutritionist and Naturopath.
She also provides oncology acupuncture services to proactively help patients during their cancer treatment.
“We’re not treating cancer, we’re treating patients going through chemotherapy, as acupuncture does offset the side effects of chemotherapy.” says Dr. Dalton.
She has a personal connection to the work carried out in this area. As a result of losing six friends to cancer, she was driven to expand access to proactive chemotherapy support to more patients.
The main goal was to help people cope with their treatment while improving quality of life both during and after chemo.
“Cancer is expensive and best quality care shouldn’t be based on whether you can afford it,” Dr. Dalton comments.
“What we’d like to do is support patients through their chemotherapy regime to help them track from one chemo treatment to the next without having to either drop out of their prescribed chemo treatment plan or to reduce the dosage of the medication prescribed by the oncologist.”
Oncology Acupuncture Benefits
The American Society for Cancer Oncology (ASCO)3 has demonstrated that oncology acupuncture may be effective in the management of treatment side effects such as:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Immune function
- Depression and anxiety
- Hot flushes
- Urinary and sexual dysfunction
- General and joint pain
- Radiation induced dry mouth
- Chemotherapy and induced peripheral neuropathy
Commonly Asked Questions
Is it safe?
Acupuncture is considered to be a safe treatment option when performed by a licensed practitioner.
As with most medical treatments, minor side effects have been observed. These may include local pain, bruising and minor bleeding4.
The benefits of acupuncture treatment, especially oncology acupuncture, are generally thought to be far greater than any of the minor side effects.
Can any acupuncturist provide oncology acupuncture?
Many acupuncture practitioners have previously worked with cancer patients as part of oncology treatment programs, however there is now a growing need for training in this field.
Dr. Dalton has worked with cancer patients at the Mater Hospital. She provides oncology acupuncture treatment to patients as part of a postgraduate program.
Oncology acupuncture is a special area of clinical focus which requires practitioners to address the unique needs of their patients.
This includes issues such as neutropenia (low count of a type of white blood cell), thrombocytopenia (low platelet count), dehydration, malnutrition and other health issues.
Therefore, oncology acupuncturists should follow clinical practice guidelines that take into account different health needs and laboratory metrics.
Practitioners should also be adequately trained to understand and address the unique risks that come with the oncology setting. These are often not present in the general acupuncture environment5.
It is important that oncology acupuncture providers receive training in psycho-oncology, as well as supportive, palliative, and survivorship care.
This ensures they are particularly well placed to provide a comprehensive level of support for cancer patients.
Does private health insurance cover oncology acupuncture?
If you have private health insurance through a health fund that includes cover for acupuncture and/or Chinese Medicine, then you may be able to claim some of these treatments.
In this case, you should check with your health fund for your level of cover and other inclusions. In fact, some health clinics have payment facilities on site (HICAPS) that allow you to make instant health fund claims for the service.
The answer to the question of whether acupuncture can help cancer patients is yes. While acupuncture doesn’t treat cancer, it helps in the management of chemotherapy side effects, some of which can really take a toll on the body.
Symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, depression and radiation induced dry mouth may all benefit from oncology acupuncture.
- Huang W, Pach D, Napadow V, et al. Characterizing acupuncture stimuli using brain imaging with FMRI-a systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature. PLoS One. 2012;7:e32960
- Simard S, Thewes B, Humphris G, et al. Fear of cancer recurrence in adult cancer survivors: a systematic review of quantitative studies. J Cancer Surviv. 2013;7:300-322
- American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) website accessed 29.6.20 https://www.asco.org/
- Melchart D , Weidenhammer W, Streng A, et al. Prospective investigation of adverse effects of acupuncture in 97 733 patients. Arch Intern Med.2004;1641:104–105.
- Lu W , Rosenthal DS. Recent advances in oncology acupuncture and safety considerations in practice. Curr Treat Options Oncol.2010;11(3–4):141–146.