The National Cancer Institute estimates that 1 in 8 women in America will develop breast cancer at some time in her life. Exposure to chemicals, unhealthy lifestyle and genetic predisposition may all play a role in the development of breast cancer, but the single most significant risk factor is growing older. Cancer of the breast is no longer viewed as a single entity but a “family” of cancers, and increasingly more specific diagnostic and treatment approaches are beginning to yield better outcomes for patients, including women with metastatic disease.

Tailoring treatments such as surgery, radiation, chemo or hormone therapy to the individual patient and her specific cancer now often allows choosing a lower-dose protocol and achieving better outcomes with fewer side-effects. But those side-effects can still be a severe burden and often prevent patients from completing their therapy.

Breast cancer patients, and increasingly their doctors, are looking for treatments to help alleviate these side-effects without adding more medications to the mix, which may themselves cause other unpleasant side-effects.

Looking over the fence of conventional medicine

One popular choice is acupuncture, which has a long track record of safely and effectively treating a wide range of serious health concerns. Acupuncture is now recommended by many of the top cancer centers in the United States to women who experience hot flashes, fatigue, nausea, loss of libido, peripheral neuropathy, back pain and other uncomfortable symptoms during and after their cancer treatment. Acupuncture has particular appeal because it is a drug-free treatment that doesn’t burden patients with additional side-effects.

Hot flashes are a symptom affecting approximately two thirds of the 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in America. This is often caused by surgical or medical treatments leading to a sudden and steep decline in natural estrogens. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are well-established treatments for women with menopausal hot flashes, so researchers were interested in testing their usefulness in women with breast cancer. While it is challenging to develop acupuncture research studies using a model more suitable for pharmaceutical research, the outcomes of numerous randomized controlled trials suggest that acupuncture is effective to reduce hot flashes in breast cancer survivors. These trials are described in reputable peer-reviewed journals and accessible through PubMed.

A few interesting research studies

Eleanor Walker, an oncologist at Henry Ford in Detroit, led a study that showed that acupuncture was equally effective as Effexor (an antidepressant currently used to treat side-effects of hormone suppression therapy) in reducing hot flashes and night sweats experienced by breast cancer patients. While both the treatment and control groups reported similar improvements, the women receiving acupuncture reported no side-effects but enhanced energy, clarity of thought, libido and sense of well-being, and their improvements lasted considerably longer than in the antidepressant group. (Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2009)

Researchers at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center demonstrated acupuncture to be an effective treatment for reducing joint pain and stiffness caused by aromatase inhibitors, which are used to treat women with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancers. In this randomized controlled trial, real acupuncture was compared with so-called sham acupuncture and found to be more effective. Acupuncture patients tolerated their treatment well and reported an improved sense of well-being. (Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2010)

How do women decide if acupuncture is a therapy they want to use for hot flashes and other uncomfortable side-effects of their breast cancer treatment? Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania spoke with women of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to find out how they go about answering this question. Most sought advice from trusted family members or their primary care physician. Some had previously received acupuncture for other health concerns, many had heard about it in the media. But accessibility, time commitment and cost also play a large role. (Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 2012)

What should you look for if you are interested in acupuncture?

If you are considering acupuncture during or after your cancer treatment to alleviate side-effects you may be experiencing, look for a professional with extensive experience working with cancer patients. This practitioner should have a masters or doctoral degree in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, be board certified and licensed as an acupuncturist in your state. You may want to inquire if your health insurance provides coverage for out-of-network acupuncture. A course of treatments is typically comprised of 8 to 12 weekly visits. Many patients find that symptom relief lasts several months after they finish, though it may be advisable to come back for monthly maintenance treatments.

I hope this is useful information if you are looking for relief while going through treatment for breast cancer.

© 2023 Christiane Siebert