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Acupuncture Helps Cancer Survivors

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

Acupuncture is part of the program at a number of cancer centers in the United States, including Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Weidon Lu and colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School described some of the benefits of acupuncture in two medical journal articles.

Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of chemotherapy. These symptoms can be treated with more drugs, but some patients prefer to limit the total amount of drugs they're taking. Acupuncture can be used either alone or in combination with anti-nausea medication. Lu reported evidence from the medical literature that acupuncture has demonstrated effectiveness in clinical trials.

Pain is a significant issue for many cancer patients, and is one of the major applications for acupuncture. As in the case for nausea and vomiting, acupuncture can be used either alone or in combination with standard medication.

Depression and anxiety are also important symptoms for cancer patients. The addition of acupuncture to standard care has produced good results in clinical trials.

Survivors of head and neck cancer often suffer long-term dry mouth and difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia) after chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Lu reported on a case series of 10 patients with cancer of the tongue, floor of the mouth, and tonsillar area, treated with acupuncture. Nine of these 10 reported subjective improvement. Out of seven who required tube feeding, six regained swallowing function and had the tubes removed after acupuncture.

Other symptoms under study for acupuncture treatment include fatigue, insomnia, hot flashes in breast cancer patients, leukopenia (not enough white blood cells), neuropathy (pain from nerve damage), and dypsnea (difficulty in breathing).

Complementary and alternative therapies are used by the majority of cancer patients, according to Lu, but acupuncture utilization is low because of cost issues. Health insurance generally does not cover this option. The Medicare program has made a step toward promoting insurance coverage by assigning Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes to acupuncture.

Lu recommended more research studies and more integration of acupuncture into cancer care.


1. Lu W et al, “The Value of Acupuncture in Cancer Care”, Hematol Oncol Clin North Am. 2008 August; 22(4): 631. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18638692

2. Lu W et al, “Acupuncture for Dysphagia after Chemoradiation Therapy in Head and Neck Cancer: A Case Series Report”, Integr Cancer Ther. 2010 September; 9(3): 284-90. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20713374.

3. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center acupuncture information: http://www.mdanderson.org/patient-and-cancer-information/care-centers-and-clinics/specialty-and-treatment-centers/integrative-medicine-center/specialized-services/acupuncture.html

Reviewed June 20, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton

Linda Fugate is a scientist and writer in Austin, Texas. She has a Ph.D. in Physics and an M.S. in Macromolecular Science and Engineering. Her background includes academic and industrial research in materials science. She currently writes song lyrics and health articles.

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