As of 2021, breast cancer became the most common cancer globally, according to the World Health Organization, accounting for 12% of all new annual cancer cases worldwide. Further, an estimated 287,850 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in U.S. women in 2022, along with 51,400 cases of non-invasive breast cancer, according to breastcancer.org.
The good news?
Thanks to early detection programs, combined with different modes of treatment for eradicating invasive disease, breast cancer survival rates have been improving since the 1980s. And while some of the biggest hurdles women face, both during and post-treatment, are the side effects, ongoing research continues to reveal just how effective acupuncture is for mitigating certain symptoms, like hot flashes, fatigue, xerostomia (dry mouth), joint pain and more.
Acupuncture for Joint Pain May Support Chemotherapy Continuation
Aromatase inhibitors are hormone therapy drugs used to treat hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, with one of the most common side effects being joint and muscle pain. One oncologist and researcher out of Columbia University, noticing the rate of therapy discontinuation in her patients due to these side effects, was prompted to produce a study revealing the effects of acupuncture in reducing aromatase inhibitor-related joint pain in women with early-stage breast cancer. Published in JAMA in 2018, the study concluded that true acupuncture compared with sham acupuncture or with waitlist control resulted in a statistically significant reduction in joint pain at 6 weeks.
Our Houston acupuncture clinic specializes in holistic pain management, and musculoskeletal symptoms, such as joint pain, are common issues that we treat using acupuncture and other Traditional Chinese medicine modalities.
Promising Research for Hot Flashes
Because the aromatase inhibitors block estrogen synthesis, hot flashes — like those experienced during menopause — are another common, uncomfortable side effect experienced during treatment.
A study out of South Korea concluded that acupuncture administered three times a week for four consecutive weeks decreased the severity of hot flashes by 70-95% in all patients, with results lasting for at least a month after the termination of treatment.
Another study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology assessed the immediate and long-term effects of true acupuncture versus sham acupuncture on hot flashes in women with breast cancer. It found that true acupuncture was associated with .8 fewer hot flashes per day than sham acupuncture at six weeks, with a further reduction in the frequency of hot flashes in the sham group, once switched over to true acupuncture.
Hope for Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome
Radiation fibrosis syndome (RFS) is a late complication of radiation therapy that can often show up 3-6 months (or sometimes even years) after treatment. It occurs as both cancer cells and healthy cells in the body are obliterated by the radiation treatment, resulting in damage to blood vessels in the area. As a result, blood flow is restricted, tissues fail to receive adequate nourishment, and an excessive formation of fibrous connective tissue consequently forms, creating structural and functional changes. Many doctors call the result “scar tissue” and often deem RFS life-long and progressive.
Treatments for RFS are typically aimed at preventing progression and maintaining function, and doctors usually provide options like medications, creams, Botox or trigger-point injections, as well as physical therapy or deep friction massage.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners would consider radiation fibrosis a severe case of qi and blood deficiency. While East Asian alternative treatments have yet to be adequately studied for this condition, hope is on the horizon for patients suffering with it, as many licensed acupuncturists have seen positive results (like pain relief and increased range of motion) in clinic when treating RFS with a combination of acupuncture and cupping (myofascial decompression) therapy.
It’s important to find a licensed acupuncturist with formal traditional Chinese medicine training when seeking treatment, as a holistic approach — where the practitioner provides full body support, in addition to treating the symptom itself — typically yields best results. Many non-acupuncturists who practice dry needling or cupping and are trained from a Western approach, often only treat the presenting symptoms, without addressing the constitution as a whole. Read more about the difference between acupuncture and dry needling here.
The Traditional Chinese Medicine Lens
Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient system of medicine dating back several centuries, and was slowly developed over time using nature as its guide. It’s a much different approach from how we view the body and disease from a Western biomedical viewpoint.
Rather than viewing the body as a machine made of up separate parts that require "repair" once they malfunction, Eastern medicine views the body more like a garden that one must continually tend to, ensuring the "environment" that is the body stays balanced. Much like how compost provides nutrients, and water and the sun give life to plants within a garden, our bodies require regular replenishment and adjustments to maintain optimal health.
The Eastern system understands that disease or sickness occurs in the body as symptoms that arise due to an underlying imbalance. By identifying specific patterns of imbalance, which are diagnosed based on presenting symptoms, tongue and pulse analysis, and through physical features observed in the patient by the practitioner, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and other modalities are then used to “balance out" these patterns, returning the body to homeostasis. One such pattern — and what practitioners often see in patients who have undergone chemotherapy — is called yin deficiency.
Yin and yang are two foundational concepts in traditional Chinese medicine that help to explain the balance of all things in life. Many Westerners recognize the yin-yang symbol, but often don’t realize its deeper significance.
Yin and Yang are two complementary, yet opposing forces that make up the whole of every organism, and all aspects of life. Yin encompasses "feminine" qualities like rest, nourishment, stillness, receptivity, coolness, etc., as opposed to the more warm and action-oriented, "masculine" nature of yang. Yin cannot exist without yang and vice versa; everything contains both halves, and "the work," is finding balance between the two, in all areas of life.
Within the body, “yin” functions would include those which help to regulate fluid balance, as well as our thermoregulatory mechanisms that help to cool the body (and yes, the kidneys are largely involved when we’re working with yin and yang).
When one side of the yin-yang balance is greater than the other, this naturally minimizes and decreases the other side. Similarly, when one side becomes smaller, this naturally enhances and strengthens the other side.
Aggressive treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation (which are very yang in nature) are exhaustive to the body’s yin, creating a pattern of imbalance called “yin deficiency.”
Because the body is lacking in cooling and hydrating mechanisms when there’s a yin deficiency, the body experiences the opposite: warm and dry (yang) symptoms such dry mouth, dry throat, hot flashes, insomnia, night sweats, and dry skin, hair and nails.
Treatments for yin deficiency include customized acupuncture protocols to stimulate the body’s yin functions, diet modifications, and certain Chinese herbal formulas to help cool and lubricate the body from the inside out.
If you’re a breast cancer survivor looking for relief from side effects, like hot flashes, joint pain, or radiation fibrosis, we encourage you to give acupuncture a try! It’s important to seek out a licensed and experienced acupuncturist. Feel free to give our Houston acupuncture clinic a call for more information or book an appointment here.