Acupuncture for the Cancer Survivor

In the last two decades, many cancer survivors have resorted to Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which includes natural products, mind-body medicine, manipulative and body-based practices. According to the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, acupuncture is considered a form of mind-body medicine. A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report indicated that more than 8 million Americans used acupuncture to treat different ailments and a recent study shows more than 10% of the cancer survivors used acupuncture. Major cancer hospitals including Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center,
MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, have incorporated acupuncture into an integrative approach to cancer treatment.


While acupuncture is thought to have originated in Asia more than 2,000 years ago, evidence indicates that it is not unique to this region. Obscure tattoo patterns found on mummified bodies in Europe and in South America suggest that treatments similar to acupuncture were used by these ancient people. However, the form of acupuncture practiced today is mainly based on a comprehensive standardized system which evolved in China around half a century ago, although other countries such as Korea and Japan also developed unique styles. Traditionally, acupuncture is often used with herbal medicine to treat diseases.

How does it work?

Acupuncture treatment involves stimulation of defined acupoints on the body with needles or electricity for therapeutic effect. These points can also be pressed by fingers. This is called acupressure. Moxibustion is a related technique that uses heat generated from the burning of an herb to warm the points. However, this method is not commonly used in cancer setting due to emission of smoke.

In Traditional Chinese medicine, the human body surface and the internal organs are thought to be connected by meridians through which “Qi,” a form of energy, flows. Pain and disease are believed to occur when the flow of Qi is blocked. Stimulating acupoints on the meridians can heal by restoring the flow of Qi. In biomedicine, acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the secretion of beta-endorphins to relieve pain. Further research suggests that acupuncture treatment can modulate other neurotransmitters and the immune system. Some hypothesize that the positive interaction between the practitioners and patients, and the placebo effect may also contribute to the therapeutic property of acupuncture. The exact mechanism is still under investigation.

Clinical effects

Acupuncture is one of the most studied forms of complementary medicine. Data from clinical trials generally support its use for arthritis, migraine headache, low-back pain, menstrual pain, and to improve outcomes in women following in-vitro fertilization. Some studies also demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of acupuncture compared to standard treatments.

Role in Cancer Treatment

In the context of traditional medicine, acupuncture has been used against cancer. But this is not supported by scientific evidence. However, acupuncture can be used to address many symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatments. Data from several major clinical studies are promising. For example, a trial conducted a decade ago involving breast cancer patients demonstrated that acupuncture can control chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting. Stimulating a point above the wrist by electricity was more effective than antiemetic drugs in controlling nausea. Many breast cancer survivors have hot flashes caused by drugs used to suppress estrogen. A study proved that acupuncture is as effective as prescription drugs in controlling hot flashes with virtually no adverse effects. Even though these patients had to go through a total of 12 weeks of treatment, results are encouraging. In addition, acupuncture helped increase libido in this population. Some breast cancer survivors also use a type of drug called aromatase inhibitor to help prevent recurrence. But these drugs can cause joint pain and stiffness. One study found that acupuncture is effective in reducing these side effects so the drug regimen could be continued.

Patients with head and neck cancer often have muscle weakness and dry mouth after chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Acupuncture can improve these symptoms. A study confirmed that by stimulating a point on the index finger, patients experienced relief from dry mouth. Interestingly, this point is connected to the jaw and the salivary glands by a meridian. There are also anecdotal reports of acupuncture’s ability to reduce neuropathy and lymphedema. Clinical trials are being developed to study these effects.

Safety and Contraindications

Acupuncture is generally safe and well tolerated by patients including children. Adverse events are rare but can include bleeding, bruising, infection and puncturing of internal organs. Pregnant women, patients with lymphedema, those wearing pacemakers, and those with low platelet counts should inform their practitioners before receiving acupuncture. Some conditions require continuous treatments in order to achieve long-term effect.


Acupuncturists are well-trained healthcare professionals. Most have Master’s or more advanced degrees. Some acupuncturists also receive additional training in treating cancer patients. Currently, 44 states recognize and regulate the practice of acupuncture. Many states consider an acupuncturist as a primary care provider, which means no special referrals are needed. When seeking a practitioner, it is important to verify the credentials and experience. Most states allow consumers to check the license or registration of practitioners online. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) also maintains a website to help consumers locate qualified acupuncturists Acupuncture treatments are generally affordable and are covered by select healthcare insurance policies.
Acupuncture is a safe, effective, and relatively inexpensive means to address many cancer and cancer treatment related symptoms. Cancer survivors are encouraged to explore this option to help maintain quality of life.

The information found here is not intended to provide nor should it be interpreted to provide professional medical, legal or financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information.

Category: Experts Speak

Tags: acupoints, acupuncture, cancer survivors, cancer treatment, CancerForward, CancerForward Expert Article, mind-body medicine, primary care provider, Simon Yeung PhD, The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM)