Treating cancer often requires using strong medicine. Chemotherapies work as toxins to kill cancer cells. Unfortunately, they often cause harmful side effects and although it is important to eradicate cancer the patient is often left with health issues. Many of the symptoms encountered while taking chemotherapies will resolve once they are no longer employed. Hair grows back, appetite increases, digestion speeds up again, and energy improves. Some symptoms don’t resolve quite as easily. For example, sometimes a person treated for cancer with chemotherapy and radiation will experience peripheral nerve damage that may or may not resolve. Nerve injury from radiation often doesn’t heal well and neuropathy caused by chemotherapies can be difficult to cure. Recovery can take anywhere from 18 months to 5 years or even longer.
Acupuncture during chemotherapy and radiation can lessen nerve damage and may even prevent it. There have been several studies done with mixed results, some point to benefit while some show no improvement. More research is needed and study design is important. It is often difficult to test true acupuncture points against “sham” points that are in different locations as even sham points may help the patient.
In my own experience as a practitioner of acupuncture I have found that receiving regular acupuncture between the weeks of chemotherapy administration helps the patient to relax, have less anxiety, lessens nausea, stimulates appetite and reduces symptoms of neuropathy. Stimulating the nervous system with gentle needling improves circulation. In my experience the patients receiving regular acupuncture reported no or very mild symptoms of neuropathy throughout the treatment. There is no way to know if they would have acquired peripheral neuropathy without care, but I find this feedback encouraging. In addition, if one suffers from peripheral neuropathy post cancer treatment, seeking acupuncture as soon as possible may lessen the degree of numbness, tingling and pain. In my experience, the longer a person suffers from a disease state the longer it takes to cure, so it is worth proactively seeking care as soon as you feel symptoms or better yet before.