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  • Writer's picturePhilip Niño Tan-Gatue

Acupuncture and Cancer-Related Fatigue – A Brief Commentary

In a previous post ( I quoted a article talking about acupuncture use for chronic pain.  Now the same prestigious Sloan-Kettering institute talks about acupuncture for symptoms related to cancer.

In my practice, I occasionally encounter the cancer patient who wants to ignore the “evil” chemotherapy and radiotherapy associated with western medicine and rely solely on “alternative medicine”.  While there are exceptions, I stick to the general policy that East and West work well together.  Sometimes Chinese Medicine can be used to assist the chemo or radio in directly attacking the cancer.  At other times, Chinese Medicine is used to address the side effects of conventional treatment, thus assisting in compliance.

The article I quote deals with the latter.

Cancer and cancer treatments can cause chronic pain, psychological stress and anaemia, all of which contribute to fatigue. In addition, people who are nauseated after chemo might not be getting the most nutritious diet for maintaining energy levels. For the research, which appeared in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Alexander Molassiotis from the University of Manchester and his colleagues tracked 227 women with moderate or severe cancer-related fatigue treated with six weekly acupuncture sessions and another 75 fatigued women who didn’t get acupuncture.

Making sense so far.  Anemia (to follow the yankee spelling) is one of the most dangerous side effects of chemotherapy.

After six weeks, general fatigue had dropped by almost four points on a 0-20 scale among women who had acupuncture, compared to a less than one point decline in the comparison group. “Acupuncture is an effective intervention for managing the symptom of chemo-related fatigue and improving patients’ quality of life,” wrote Molassiotis and his colleagues. The improvement was “mild to moderate,” according to Amit OVRSood at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota – not enough to allow someone who is stuck in bed to start walking, but maybe enough to get people who are too tired to exercise to start doing some activity.

Yes, don’t expect miracles, and don’t expect the needles to do all the work.  It won’t miraculously let one be healthy, but it will help the patient get on his or her way.

Anxiety and depression scores, measured from 0 to 21, dropped by two additional points post-acupuncture, compared to scores in women given educational materials only. Emotional and physical well-being got a greater boost with acupuncture therapy as well, Malassiotis and his team found.

Works for depression too.

The study did not prove it was the needles themselves that boosted the women’s energy levels, and researchers couldn’t tell how much of the benefit might have been due to the “placebo effect” – feeling better because they expected to.

The problem with this sentence is that it again misunderstands what placebo is.  Placebo is defined as a real beneficial effect despite no active biologic agent being administered.  Since the insertion of needles ANYWHERE along the body – acupoint or otherwise- causes biologic effect (heck, even just putting a needle on the skin does), then placebo effect cannot apply.

Anyhow, most acupuncture protocols for strengthening include points for strengthening the Spleen and Stomach.  Why is this important?  The Spleen and Stomach are responsible for deriving nutrients (grain Qi) from food.  It is also responsible for “transforming” (digesting) this Qi and, along with other Organs, form Blood (not just blood in the western sense, but blood and it’s nutrients) which the Spleen then brings to the four limbs, working with the Heart and Lungs.  It is theorized that what the ancients spoke of as the Spleen bringing Qi to the limbs actually refers to the hemostatic activity of blood in the capillaries, where gas and nutrient exchange takes place.  (Hence, weak Spleens result in easy bruising in otherwise healthy individuals).  I refer you to the work of Wang Ju Yi and Jason Robertson for this.

In my personal practice the greatest success stories involve patients who have sought acupuncture and herbs as a complement to their cancer treatment.  I usually get referrals to treat fatigue and nausea, with moderate to magnificent success.  What do I mean by success?  They’re alive, they’re functional, they’re happy, years after the chemo.

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