Acupuncture and Cancer Care

For cancer patients, self-care can take on new meaning. A diagnosis can instill a strong desire to exercise, eat well, rest, or make space for quiet. It also might mean considering new treatment options like acupuncture. 

I have treated many patients with cancer, each with their own priority list of what they are hoping to achieve through treatments. Individuals seek acupuncture to address a variety of complaints, including nausea, low white cell count, adhesions post-surgery, anxiety, neuropathy, fatigue, or side effects from treatments and medications.

In addition to targeting specific ailments, an acupuncture appointment can serve as a place of quiet, a place to vent, cry, or just be unreachable for an hour. I find the best way to support someone during cancer treatment is to take the time to see who is in front of me--not just what symptoms are present. Yes, there are certain acupuncture points with powerful physiological effects--such as a point on the inner arm for nausea--but the combination of points depends on the person who is being treated. Each individual is different, even if they have a similar diagnosis. That is what I love about acupuncture as a medicine: an acupuncture treatment is flexible. The treatment plan focuses on the individual, not just the disease, and includes all of the body’s systems rather than just the area of concern. What modalities we choose, points we needle, and diet and exercise we suggest all depend on the person in front of us in addition to the physiological effect of a particular acupuncture point.

An acupuncture treatment might also become a safe space to share one’s experience without judgment. When an operation to remove a tumor is successful, but leaves adhesions that limit movement or scars that are hard to look at, one may have trouble just celebrating the operation’s success. It helps to have a space to acknowledge the limitations of surgery or any treatment option and receive support for both the physical and emotional responses that come up. Local needles can help break up some of the scar tissue and help stimulate collagen production to diminish scarring, but the emotional effects need attention too. Grief about a changing body is normal, and including points to support a patient through that change might be as important to recovery as altering a physical scar. 

In an acupuncture intake, we go through the systems of the body to pinpoint any imbalances that may be lurking, including emotional imbalance. Physical ailments can affect emotions just as emotions can trigger physical response. One doesn’t separate the body from the mind. Emotional toil is a hallmark of going through cancer treatment. I hear patients discuss guilt as their health concerns bleed into interpersonal relationships; fear about their future; anger that it is happening to them; and sadness about the impermanence of life. All of these feelings are appropriate, and knowing what is emotionally present is an important piece of the puzzle when choosing an acupuncture treatment plan. 

Time and energy are precious, especially when one is going through cancer treatment. Putting a plan in place and having a team of support can make a huge difference in one’s quality of life. I have witnessed the relief and peace that acupuncture can offer and encourage patients to look into trying it themselves. 

Carole Wyche L.Ac practices acupuncture and herbal medicine in Portland at Jade Integrated Health on outer Washington Ave. Jade Integrated Health also offers clinical hours at the Dempsey Center in South Portland and at New England Cancer Specialist in Topsham.